It isn’t very long into writer-director Elizabeth Chomko’s story before we learn what it was “They Had.”

“They” are Ruth, (the irrepressible Blythe Danner) a sweet woman in her seventies, always ready with a smile.

Burt (Robert Forster) her husband, is retired, probably from a management position.

What they had was 50-something years of a normal, everyday happy marriage. It’s only a matter of moments before we discover that this is the family next door, down the street, or perhaps even just upstairs.

“What They Had,” is given to us by actress, playwright Elizabeth Chomko, whom you may recognize from TV shows like “Common Law” and “South Boston Legal.”

It becomes clear from scene one that these two love one another, and what they had in their happy box of decades was a relationship shaped by the mores and rituals of their generation: Home and job, weekly Catholic mass, and meatloaf and mashed potato dinners.

Ruth, it seems, probably never had to work. Her life was about shopping, raising two kids, coffee with friends and caring for Burt.

They now have the rest of their lives together, and it’s a comfortable life for both.

They live in a condo somewhere in a nice neighborhood in Chicago, where winter has set in — both on the concrete steps outside and in Ruth’s aging brain. And therein lies the tale. Ruth is clearly on that last block of approaching dementia, where the street lights are beginning to dim and the wind is cold.

As the film begins, the future suddenly arrives. Ruth has taken to running out into the early snow late at night, while Burt, probably exhausted from caring for her, is asleep.

Ruth should be under special care by now, but Burt — a stubborn, gruff and probably life-long domineering Irish Catholic with centuries of Irish pride and independence engrained in his soul — has staked out his claim as the only one who can help her.

Standing on the edges of this dilemma is son Nick (a terrific and wonderful Michael Shannon) who has inherited both his father’s crusty, obdurate cover and his mother’s sensitivity.

With problems of his own, Nick has tired of the late night calls and the fear in his stomach from seeing the mother he knew becoming someone else.

Unable to convince his father to seek a haven of rest where she can be properly taken care of, Nick calls his sister Bridget (Hilary Swank) home from California for assistance.

Bridget too has her own problems. We learn that she is a successful chef living with a failing marriage.

Emma, her daughter (Taissa Farmiga) is struggling in school, most likely because of the stress at home and what she sees here in Chicago.

As in every family where the smoke of dementia seeps in and takes root, things begin to crack and threaten to shatter. Chomka, the writer, offers the glue, and Chomka, the director, applies it at the precise moment. Now what the family had is fading away, and they are left, as most of us are, with what they have.

Seldom has a cast been so perfectly chosen to step into such a timely and important story.

It would be hard to chose a better actor than Oscar winner Hilary Swank to play Bridget. To place her next to the soothing performance of the great and always splendid Blythe Danner was a masterful move.

Robert Forster, always the reliable tough guy with a heart of gold, has been floating around from movie to movie since his troubled soldier in “Reflections in a Golden Eye” with Marlon Brando. Here, as Burt, he pulls it off again.

And then there is Michael Shannon, an actor blessed with a box of powerful tools and an uncanny ability to use them. Shannon, who popped up from out of nowhere and shot to the front of the line in a series of complex roles, will be with us for a long time.

All players are held together by Chomka’s expert hand and beautifully framed by Roberto Schaefer’s deft touch with the camera.

There are no special effects here. No manipulating closeups nor music. There are just four real people in the grip of a dilemma, wondering what to do with this thing they have and remembering with love what they had.

J.P. Devine, of Waterville, is a former stage and film actor.

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