Pieces of April

Happy Holiday Dysfunction!

Main Cast: Katie Holmes, Patricia Clarkson, Derek Luke

Director: Peter Hedges

Peter Hedges writes and directs this low profile film. Hedges has a short but formidable list of writing credits to his name, including the screenplay for the wonderful About a Boy and both the novel and screenplay for What’s Eating Gilbert Grape. He has a deft touch in giving us characters that are quirky, amplified versions of people we know and to whom we can relate. He spins that effective formula once again in Pieces of April, his directorial debut.

pieces of april

April (Katie Holmes) is the wild child. She moved away from home at a fairly tender age, lives a low rent bohemian life in New York City, has funky hair and clothes and jewelry and just generally does not fit the mold her suburban parents expect from their progeny. As the eldest, she has rebelled in a big way, leaving her more conservative siblings to bear the weight of parental expectations.

As we enter her world, it is Thanksgiving morning. She and live-in boyfriend Bobby (Derek Luke) have a meal to cook. April’s family is coming to their apartment for Thanksgiving dinner. Inexperienced, unsure and fumbling every step of the way, April sets out to prepare this feast for a family she loves, loathes and from whom she fled yet still desperately wants approval.

Meanwhile, the family in question is driving to the city. We understand early on that none of them really wants to go; they disapprove of April, are resentful of her past bad behavior and are doubtful she can or will actually prepare an adequate holiday meal. Matriarch Joy (Patricia Clarkson) is at once the driving force behind making the trip and the ring leader in ridiculing April. Joy has cancer. Her family is deferential to the point of frustrating her with their well intentioned doting, and she herself is acerbic and mean, unless she’s being selfless and scared. The film plays out with the two groups preparing for this meeting. Neither is sure that it’s the right thing to do and both hang on to many years of hurt feelings and bad memories. Their stories as they either prepare a meal or travel in order to eat one make up the bulk of this poignant and funny film.

One of the beauties of Pieces of April is that it manages to be both clichéd (dysfunctional family attempts to reconcile over a holiday celebration) and fairly novel (child’s guilt over dislike of ailing parent). The cliché is one that never actually seems to get too terribly old. There are a thousand and one varieties of dysfunctional families, each with quirks and relationships that can make them interesting, as long as they’re written and performed well. Luckily for us, Peter Hedges knows how to write just this type of character and our actors are amazingly proficient at portraying them without devolving into the banal.

Both April and Joy are fabulous, deep, sad and funny people. April is struggling with some of the typical trials that come with youth, first forays into self-sufficiency and a complicated past. She isn’t happy or enthusiastic about this meal, but she needs her family (especially Joy) to approve, to see her as a capable adult rather than a rebellious child. She needs some positive closure on her unhappy childhood. Unfortunately, she’ll also need some help to pull it off, which she finds in a funny, eclectic assortment of neighbors (heretofore strangers) that share her run down apartment building and in one way or another help her get through this day. Katie Holmes runs with this character and makes her sweet, endearing and frustrating. We can see in her April the things that make her family angry. We can also see that she is a hurt child trying to become a functional adult. This is not the Katie Holmes of Dawson’s Creek. She has an edge as an actress here – she’s willing to be less than completely likable, she’s funny, she doesn’t look particularly wholesome or pretty and she has a sad look that says a lot about April. Her single sex scene with Bobby is not graphic, visually, but it isn’t restrained in tone, either. Hopefully we haven’t seen the last of this Katie Holmes.

Then we have Joy. Joy is mean. She is demanding. She is critical. She is manipulative. She is angry and bitter. She has cancer. She is frustrated and frustrating. She is torn between a bitter, unhappy past with her eldest child and the need to make a good memory to assuage all the bad as she deals with her own mortality. Somehow, she also manages to be funny, sometimes in situations that make us uncomfortable in our laughter. Joy is, well, a joy. She isn’t some ridiculous façade of sainthood that so often accompanies any character with a serious illness. She isn’t all courage and glowing love and acceptance. She’s the same woman she always was, but now she has a damn good reason to be well and truly pissed at the world. She is battling with demons both physical and emotional and that battle isn’t pretty. Patricia Clarkson is absolutely amazing in the role. She makes Joy into a person, not an illness. The set of her mouth as she fights her physical symptoms shows us her strength. The cruel words from that same mouth show us how she came to be so estranged from her daughter in the first place. She is so far from perfect she isn’t even in striking distance and there are times that she revels in her imperfection. But she feels real. For every frustrating (and often hilarious) action Clarkson gives us an equal and opposite peek at the scared and lonely woman who has come to this place in her life unprepared to deal with her own failings or the failings of her family. Clarkson was nominated for an Oscar for this performance, a more than deserved honor.

The supporting cast is also delightful. Oliver Platt as the long suffering, hilariously bland and placating, but scared and grieving husband is wonderful. This is not the type of role in which I’m accustomed to seeing the man. He seems so at home as a more self assured character that it’s a pleasant surprise to see how well he handled this milquetoast “peacemaker”. Also of note is Allison Pill as Beth, the perfect but unbelievably annoying younger sibling. She’s funny and exasperating and bossy and just as scared as the rest of the family.

Peter Hedges took on a thankless task when he decided to write about a woman with cancer who is also a pretty awful human being. The film most definitely leans toward sympathizing with April, the daughter who is torn with guilt over her angry, unrepentant dislike of her own ill mother. There is no shiny gloss of redemption for Joy simply because she is ill, no easing of hurt for April because her mother has now become the accepting parent she always needed (because she hasn’t). These people feel, for all their exaggerated quirks, real. The situation has definitely been made larger than life to pull out the comedy in the material, but Pieces of April also takes a look at a hard, unhappy subject and does so with respect for every character.

The one major downfall in the work is its too pat conclusion. An understandable indulgence on the part of Hedges, it does undermine the film just a bit. Even while criticizing, I can’t quite imagine a more satisfactory conclusion, or one that would have been less pat. The film is a comedy, and like Hedges’ other comedies, the tragic and dramatic elements make the comedy poignant, give it depth and heart – but they don’t overwhelm. To end the film other than the way he chooses would do a serious disservice to the delicate balance of pathos and humor that Hedges maintains throughout the body of the work. So, not the most satisfying ending, but perhaps the most appropriate given that we don’t have the hours and hours we would need to get to a real resolution to this family’s myriad problems.

Pieces of April is a gem. It strikes a beautiful balance between the cliché and the novel, the funny and the tragic, the mother and the daughter. The characters feel real, even as they wade into comically exaggerated situations, the performances are terrific and the story gives a voice to all the people who have and will suffer the small personal horror of discovering that a difficult family member is now ill. Kudos to Hedges for a lovely directorial debut.

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