It’s telling that for her directorial debut, Katie Holmes was drawn to the story of a mother and daughter on the run—from bad men, toward brighter economic futures. Watching desperate single mom Rita (Holmes) and precocious 14-year-old daughter Ruthie (Stefania Owen) Carmichael, who look like such carbon copies of each other that you don’t even question the genetics of an absent father, you can’t help but think of Holmes and daughter Suri Cruise, captured in countless paparazzi shots.
What is outside of the parameters of Holmes’ world is the 2007-08 financial crisis, which forms the backdrop for All We Had. At the start of the film, Rita and Ruthie have fled another shady boyfriend (“my mother was better at loving men than choosing them,” Ruthie intones in voiceover) and bills they just can’t pay. Running on fumes—figuratively and literally, in their battered car—they attempt to dine-and-ditch at a local diner on the road, only to have their car break down in front of their marks.
Now, Rita follows signs from the universe (the first of several cliché moments in the screenplay, adapted by The Fault in Our Stars director Josh Boone from Annie Weatherwax’s novel), and this is definitely a sign… that she should walk back into the diner and convince the owners to help them. “Superheroes don’t fly or look like Jesus,” she implores the kindly Marty (Richard Kind), afflicted with a big heart but also a fragile one, and cynical waitress Pam (Eve Lindley). “They drive broken-down cars. They make mistakes.” The whole time, solemn Ruthie, who has been complicit in her mother’s dine-and-ditches and gas-station shoplifting cons, passively participates as Rita employs a different sort of con.
Maybe that’s cynical, especially considering that the solution—they’ll stay in town for a while, working off their breakfast and then saving up to move—ultimately helps ground them. But these kinds of scenes are where Rita is fascinating: She’s scrappy, unapologetic, hard-edged until too many disasters force her to break down into spontaneous self-loathing. Yet, the film only dips into these moments of complexity, instead settling for more of an archetypal “immature mom and too-mature daughter” dynamic as telegraphed by Rita’s constant reapplication of too-young-for-her electric blue eyeliner.
It’s no wonder that Ruthie resents the trappings of suburban life and feels more comfortable on the road: When they settle down is when they get into trouble, thanks to Rita’s bad decisions. They’re all made with the best of intentions, but she’s too busy thinking about that million-dollar get that she fails to create a life for her and Ruthie out of realistic building blocks. Rita goes on and on about Ruthie being so smart that she’ll be a doctor, or the president someday, when she really should be focusing on Ruthie’s struggles to fit in at school, especially when she has to skip the ninth grade (one imagines more for saving money than because of Ruthie’s considerable smarts).
This looming trap of blind hopefulness and rash decision-making are best embodied by Rita’s latest guy, slimy real estate agent Vic (Mark Consuelos), who seems far too eager to have Rita buy a house in the area. Ruthie is suspicious, but what can she do? She’s the child.
And yet, the movie passes the Bechdel test with flying colors. Rita and Ruthie argue about settling down versus moving on (with Ruthie eventually exploding at her mother that “you turn every good thing you touch to shit!”), and Ruthie finds a more suitable mentor figure in waitress Pam. Lindley is saddled with a transgender character with some clichés—she wants to move to New York City to be an actress; her YouTube username is Peter Pam—but still brings heart and resilience to the role, especially around the shits in town who throw slurs (and worse) at her.
Rita’s interactions with other women are fascinating, as she bristles under their judgment yet levels her own uneducated prejudices against someone like Pam or Patti (Judy Greer, tragically underused), a perpetually pregnant neighbor with biracial children. Unfortunately, the circumstances that make Rita finally accept Pam as a woman are the kind of overused narrative shorthand that needs to be torched. Even when Luke Wilson enters the picture as a more suitable love interest for Rita—the local dentist, a recovering alcoholic—Ruthie and Rita’s conversations are less about him than about Ruthie’s fears of getting trapped by another guy.
Holmes’ directorial touches are there, but mostly forgettable. A slow-motion scene in which Rita and Ruthie frolic in the rain (free shower!) goes on too long, and the voiceovers detract from the main action. One of the best touches, however, is that in every scene Holmes looks faded and worn, while Owen is positively radiant. All We Had and Holmes present us with a rising star.