Holidays have a way of bringing out the best in everyone. Just ask Neal Page, who encounters Del Griffith on the trip from hell in “Planes, Trains, and Automobiles” or how about Claudia Larson, who heads home for a family reunion at Thanksgiving only to have it turn into a gigantic fight in Jodie Foster’s “Home for the Holidays.” Many films have turned dysfunctional relationships into comedy during the holidays and “Pieces of April” is no different. On the surface, the Burns family seems overly mundane, but as we spend Thanksgiving with them, we realize that there are many more complicated issues at stake. The film is a great first step for screenwriter turned director, Peter Hedges. Although there are some awkward attempts at humor, the overall picture is best viewed under the guise of drama.
April Burns is the oldest of three siblings in the Burns family; however, growing up, she was in constant conflict with her mother. So difficult was her relationship with her mother that she distanced herself by getting mixed up in the wrong crowd and the wrong influences. As a teenager, she left home and became a drug addict. But times change and people change. Currently, April shares an apartment with her boyfriend, Bobby. As Thanksgiving approaches, Bobby convinces April to invite her family over for the holiday. Reluctantly, April gives in and the two begin the arduous task of turkey preparation.
What makes this so monumental for April is the fact that she has never cooked much of anything before, but even more so, that her mother, with whom she has never seen eye to eye, has cancer and only a few short months to live. Wanting to do something special, wanting to do something right, April gets out the cranberry sauce, stuffing, and mashed potatoes while Bobby goes off on a mysterious errand. But as luck would have it, the stove in her apartment is broken. As the Burns family makes their way to April’s rundown New York City apartment, April realizes that everything hinges upon the kindness of neighbors, some of whom are a little reluctant to help a stranger.
Peter Hedges has made a living as a screenwriter, examining dysfunctional relationships and situations and finding a cathartic release in between. Such was the case in “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape” and even his most recent “About a Boy,” which earned him an Oscar nomination for best-adapted screenplay. When Hedges is on, he’s one of the best in the business. And when he’s slightly off, you get “Pieces of April,” a holiday drama that is sincere in effort but plagued with many unfunny moments.
You can’t have your cake and eat it too. This saying is most applicable to the delivery of the film. In other words, you can’t have a moving drama and attempt to be funny at the same time. It just doesn’t work. You see, there’s nothing funny about a cancer patient who struggles to maintain a sense of dignity and wishes for a degree of urgency in her remaining days (sitting in the car, ready to go, while everyone is still asleep). There’s nothing funny about throwing a young black man into a stereotypical situation when the majority of the film is spent proving that same stereotype wrong (scaring the Burns family upon their arrival). And I’m still not laughing at what was supposed to be a comical exchange between April and her bizarre, fellow apartment dweller, Wayne. Was that his hairpiece that she supposedly pulled off? These humorless subplots and moments are a distraction to the overall flow of the film. A dramatic film, mind you. And I can only imagine how powerful the ending would have been if there wasn’t a squirrel burial or a stop at Krispy Kremes.
The film was shot digitally and made on a shoestring budget, but you really can’t tell. It looks great and I don’t think it affected the final product whatsoever. However, the ending may be seen as a cheap cop out. Here, Hedges chooses a mosaic of snapshots instead of allowing the film to play out. Budget withstanding, I think it was a brilliant touch. Artistically, it seemed to tie all of the pieces together in a poignant way, leaving a little bit to the imagination. And sometimes, less is more.
Katie Holmes has many films to her credit, but nothing as memorable as her performance as April. In this film, she leaves her All-American, girl next-door charm for an edgier, troublesome twenty something. And for once, I was able to forget “Dawson’s Creek” and concentrate on Katie Holmes, the talented actress. Holmes’ April is flawed to be sure. With fire engine streaks in her hair, street clothes, and cherry tattoos along her neck, she could be easily mistaken for a lady of the night. But beyond appearance, her character is appealing and innocently transparent. Harboring such defiant antagonism, she is still desperate to win her mother’s affection and Holmes’ portrayal is genuine.
Also crucial to this film are the performances from Patricia Clarkson and Oliver Platt. Platt’s character is pivotal to the family making its way to April’s apartment for Thanksgiving; however, his faith and affection for his wife are tested throughout. On the verge of a mental breakdown, Platt fights back tears, powerfully reminding us that he’s the wobbly glue holding everything together. On the opposite side is Clarkson, who portrays a cancer victim with such cynicism and pain that we experience her roller coaster ride of emotions first hand – love, sorrow, indifference, and ultimately regret. Her character’s turning point, in the ladies’ room, toward the end of the film is understandably tearful. Winning praise for such supporting roles in “Far From Heaven” and “The Station Agent,” Clarkson is slowly evolving into a powerful on-screen presence. Somebody, anybody, please get her a leading role!
Although “Pieces of April” has many unfunny shortcomings, it still succeeds because of the strong performances by its leading actors. Holmes, Clarkson, and Platt steer the course through the straight and narrow and keep the film from becoming an inedible holiday leftover. And as the holidays approach, it’s films like these that realistically show how one day can break families apart, but more often than naught; they can bring us all together.