Alzheimer’s disease is a tricky subject in film; it can often sink into distracting melodrama or be used as a plot device instead of an actual ailment to the character, as they conveniently collect themselves when the narrative requires it and then get all confused again when needed. First time director Elizabeth Chomko handles it wonderfully in her debut What They Had, letting the sad realities of this affliction play out realistically for one Chicago family whose matriarch approaches stage 6. Blythe Danner playfully, sadly and intuitively embodies this woman, fleetingly letting us see glimpses of the woman that once was, now lost to inexorable mental fog as she approaches the end. Her husband of four odd decades (Robert Forster) refuses to put her into a home, out of both stubbornness and just plain love. Their two children (Hilary Swank and Michael Shannon) return home to deliberate the situation, and a superbly acted, quietly honest family drama ensues. Chomko also wrote the script and her dialogue has the stinging bite and dynamic depth of someone who is drawing from somewhere personal, and indeed I read that this film is based on her own experience. She shows surefire talent in writing as well as behind the camera and I wish her all the best in a career that will hopefully be something really special. Shannon is perfect as the scrappy, diamond-in-the-rough bar owner who uses gruff bluster to mask his heartbreak. Swank is emotionally resonant as the more distant and reserved of the two siblings, trying to deal with both her mom and daughter (Taissa Farmiga, excellent). Forster has seldom been better as the obstinate family man who just won’t let his girl go, he handles the guy with a stern resolve that begins to crack as he realizes that one day she will forget him entirely. Danner has the most difficult role, but nails it. There’s a befuddled remoteness to people with this disease, a near constant confusion that I’ve seen in real life but that doesn’t dim the warmth of their personality, at least for a while anyways, and the actress never over or underplays it. This is a terrific debut for Chomko and demo reel worthy material for all the major players, a small scale drama that wins big and elicits well earned empathy from us. Highly recommended.