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Pieces of April (2003)

Shes the one in every family.

Directed by:

Peter Hedges

Rating: 7/10

Running Time: 80 minutes

UK Certificate: 12A

Country: United States

In 1621, pilgrim colonists at Plymouth held a feast together with the Wampanoag people to celebrate the harvest, and so it is that once each year, on the fourth Thursday of November, people from all over the US return to their family home to be with their loved ones for Thanksgiving Day, a ritual as American as apple (or, in this case, pumpkin) pie. Of course, the original feast of the founding pilgrims is an aeon away from the present day, so the Thanksgiving holiday, with its focus on family and race relations, and notions of kindness and gratitude, is the perfect vehicle for filmmakers interested in the current state of the American nation and its distance from the celebrated ideals of old. All these themes find their proper place in ‘Pieces of April’, in which writer/director Peter Hedges effectively overhauls the Thanksgiving myth for our own fractured times of family dysfunction, social disintegration and racial tension.

The Burns set off early, and somewhat halfheartedly, for the long trip to New York City to join their estranged daughter April (Katie Holmes), the black sheep of the family, for a Thanksgiving get-together which they all know will be their last, since April’s mother Joy (Patricia Clarkson) is dying of cancer. As the Burns clown and bicker on the road, and repeatedly contemplate turning back to avoid yet another disappointing experience with their oldest daughter, April discovers that the oven in her apartment does not work and is forced to turn to a multi-ethnic collection of neighbours for help, while her new lover Bobby (Derek ‘Antwone Fisher’ Luke) is destined for a run-in with her previous, drug-dealing boyfriend. Will anyone, let alone the turkey, ever make it to April’s rickety table?

Although the script by Peter Hedges (who also wrote the original novel of ‘What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?’ and the screenplay for About a Boy) has many sharp lines and witty, sometimes surreal observations of family breakdown, the film is too full of bitterness, tragedy and pain to be the mere farce that it might sound like on paper. This is largely due to the complicated character of Joy, who, when she is not vomiting or smoking dope, makes fun of the cares and sympathies of those around her, acerbically undermining all those she loves and reserving her greatest venom for April. Patricia Clarkson’s brashly cynical turn as Joy is reason in itself to see ‘Pieces of April’, but is also neatly counterbalanced by Oliver Platt’s less dramatic but no less assured performance as Joy’s anxious husband Jim, desperate to create a single perfect family memory for a far from perfect family before it is too late. All the tropes of generosity (and its lack) can be seen in April’s exchanges with the various folk who share her building, while the white April’s relationship with her black boyfriend (something rarely seen in American movies) and with her African-American and Chinese neighbours replays the spirit of community between foreign pilgrims and Native Americans half a milennium earlier. And the ending of ‘Pieces of April’ could stir the most phlegmatic of viewers to tears.

It's Got: A dotty grandmother (called Dottie), a creepy canine-lover (played by Sean Will and Grace Hayes), a seriously dysfunctional family, and the fantastic Patricia Clarkson playing a cancer-riddled mother who tells her own son, as he passes her a joint, to roll it tighter next time.

It Needs: The scenes where Bobby rattles on to his friend Latrell (SisQo) about the meaning of love to be a little sharper and less trite.

Alternatives:

Home for the Holidays, Planes, Trains and Automobiles, The Myth of Fingerprints

Summary

Riffing off the Thanksgiving myth, 'Pieces of April' offsets sentimentality with some hard-hitting cynicism. Intelligent, painful, and ultimately very moving.

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