Movies about Thanksgiving almost always involve dysfunctional families. Because it is a time to recognize the positive things in your life, screenwriters often use the holiday as a shortcut to exploring familial issues. These pictures always end with the feuding relatives coming to the realization that they really, truly need and love one another. It’s amazing that Pieces of April finds a way of making this old formula seem fresh. How does it accomplish this? By keeping the family apart for most of the movie and using character analysis as a way of suggesting the dysfunction.
The Burns family is quite interesting. Joy (Patricia Clarkson) was seemingly a difficult and manipulative woman to begin with, but she has grown bitter after being diagnosed with terminal cancer. She says what she thinks and expects others to deal with their own hurt feelings. Father Jim (Oliver Platt) is the orchestrator of the day; he knows this Thanksgiving may be his wife’s last, so he pushes for the reunion with April. Daughter Beth (Alison Pill) and son Timmy (John Gallagher, Jr.) basically bend over backwards to give their mother what she wants. They most likely seek some grain of approval before the cancer takes her away. What they don’t realize is that they have become obnoxious suck-ups, continually bashing April so that they can play the role of the “good” children.
Back in New York, matters are further complicated when April’s oven breaks, leaving her without a way of cooking the turkey. She bangs on doors in her apartment building, begging people for help. Eventually, she sweet talks creepy neighbor Wayne (Sean Hayes) into letting her use the new oven he just had installed.
Writer/director Peter Hedges shifts back and forth between April’s cooking attempts and scenes of the Burns family making the car ride to New York. From this, we learn everything we need to know about all the characters, without ever really seeing them interact. April is certainly rebellious, but she’s probably been pushed into it. Deep down, she’s a caring person who wants to do something special for her ailing mother, even though she resents the woman. She knows this very well may be the last chance she has to give her mother something.
The others in the family don’t want to come for Thanksgiving dinner. They don’t think April can pull it off. They expect failure from her. She has somehow been scapegoated along the way. It’s at the point where nobody even questions it anymore; they simply pin expectations of failure on her. At one point, Joy even blames her cancer on April, saying: “She used to bite my nipples when I breast fed her. No wonder there’s cancer in there!”
The thing none of April’s family members seem to realize is that the day is coming together. For all their complaining, they’re in the car heading to Thanksgiving dinner. Of course, no one would ever admit that they want to go, but go they do. You don’t see anyone refusing to get into the car.
Pieces of April is a movie made by the performances, which are uniformly pitch-perfect. Katie Holmes is particularly good playing this young woman whose exterior toughness masks inner feelings of insecurity. She makes you feel at every second how crucial it is for April to pull dinner together, because it’s not really about the dinner at all. The other key performance comes from Patricia Clarkson. It would have been easy to play Joy as a villain or a bitch. She could have come off as one-note. Clarkson (a wonderful actress who has also appeared in Far From Heaven and The Station Agent) gives her unexpected depth. It is true that Joy is not a nice woman, nor is she an affectionate one. She can be ruthlessly mean, condescending, and manipulative. She sees the world only in black and white. However, Clarkson invests her with an offbeat sense of humanity that makes you pity her rather than hate her. You probably know someone just like Joy. She wasn’t a terribly happy person to begin with, and now she’s got this cancer and is probably going to die. The bodily cancer is finishing off what the emotional cancer started a long time ago.
As I was watching the film, I became worried about the ending. Pieces of April is a slice-of-life movie, made up of moments that feel almost documentary-like. It’s kind of like eavesdropping into someone else’s world. Quite frankly, I wasn’t sure how the story was going to end. Director Hedges wisely finds an appropriately low-key way of wrapping everything up. There are no dramatic confrontations (which would have ruined the carefully constructed tone), nor does the movie go all soft and squishy with a tear-jerking reunion. Instead, the ending takes the approach that only one thing matters: everyone got together in the same room. The family’s problems are not miraculously solved in the end, but they are at least together, and for this family that is an achievement.
I like the simplicity in Pieces of April. It nicely observes human nature within families, dysfunctional or not. There’s probably something here that everyone can relate to. The movie is slight but sweet, with many laughs and a gentle reminder that family is family, no matter what.
( out of four)
Pieces of April is rated PG-13 for language, sensuality, drug content and images of nudity. The running time is 1 hour and 20 minutes.
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