John Gallagher, Jr.
1 Hr., 21 Mins.
Pieces of April
he perfect Thanksgiving is an unreachable idyll. Theoretically, it sounds attainable: It’s a day in which families and sometimes friends are given the opportunity to bask in the glory of each other’s company, all over a delicious meal.
But when put into practice, challenges can abound. Getting grown family members together can pose travel problems. Getting so much food prepared in the span of less than a day can be arduous.
The most common difficulty tends to lie in familial relationships, which
are nuanced and intricate and imperfect. While some broods get along famously, some are partial to becoming overrun by dysfunctionality. Once people age and personalities change, clashing isn’t unheard of. Even I, who considers myself lucky for having so many likable family members extended or otherwise, still find myself succumbing to unhealthy ideas of certain relatives being more insufferable than others. By the end of the night, frequently felt is not necessarily a feeling of contentment but rather exhaustion. It’s one of the few times of the year where you have to try as hard as you can to set aside differences in the name of a holiday, and such isn’t always so easy.
The characters in Pieces of April (2003), a Sundance favorite written and directed by Peter Hedges, are similarly trying to put their best foot forward for the sake of tradition. But this is complicated. These people are in the midst of various crises, and until now have been wallowing in denial.
They comprise the Burns family, and we imagine there used to be a time in which things were better. But everything seems to be falling apart as of late. Matriarch Joy (Patricia Clarkson) has breast cancer, and is likely going to die from the illness. Oldest daughter April (Katie Holmes) lives in a bad neighborhood on the Lower East Side, essentially banished from the family after extensive drug use and perceived ingratitude. Patriarch Jim (Oliver Platt) is kind but unwilling to confront the fact that things are not okay; other children Beth (Alison Pill) and Timmy (John Gallagher, Jr.) are coming of age but in a turbulent way as a result of all the tumult.
This year, though, the family’s decided they’re going to try to have a good Thanksgiving. April, wanting to make amends, will be hosting; the rest of the clan will be driving from their quaint suburban home to be with her. Like the holiday they’re observing, such a plan sounds great conceptually. But whether it will ultimately work out isn’t so clear, given April’s estrangement.
Yet, the entirety of the movie, which was miraculously shot in 16 days for just $100,000, turns out to not be about the Thanksgiving dinner itself. It jumps back and forth between three storylines: the family’s long-winded drive, which is frequently interrupted by Joy’s bathroom or medicinal needs; April’s agitated attempts to get the meal together, which is fucked up by the unexpected breaking of her oven; and April’s boyfriend’s (Derek Luke) fruitless attempts to snag a fancy suit to impress his girl’s parents.
Each story is intimate and sporadically moving, sometimes even funny. In scenes with April, which mostly find her frantically trying to figure out how she’s going to get this turkey done on time, we see a former good girl gone bad trying as hard she can to be good again – and we feel for her. In scenes revolving around the family’s drive, we understand why this group has such a hard time getting along: Everyone is outspoken but predominantly in ways that refuse to blend. And in watching the future Mr. April Burns frenziedly try to get his paws on some flashy garb, we see a bright future for his lady love: this man’s a genuinely good one.
We know who these characters are, and that understanding helps strengthen the ending, which is bound to leave some feeling unsatisfied. The conclusion is barefaced and deceptively simple: Rather than watch the dramas of the Thanksgiving dinner unfold, we subversively see the goings-on depicted through a series of polaroids. Some, such as the prolific critic Roger Ebert, sees this as a sign of the shoestring-budgeted film running out of money. Some see it as an ingenious method of understatedly executing a scene that’d be difficult to conventionally deliver in a satisfying way. I consider myself part of the latter camp, though I’d undoubtedly be interested in watching the Burnses try to rebuild their fractured relationships in the span of a few hours.
That I’m interested in seeing an extended version of Pieces of April comes to show just what an emotionally involving movie it is. Even with so little, it develops compelling characters who matter to us. We wish we had more to work with. But like any good cinematic slice of life, the smallest of details make up for a lacking of the grandiose. B