' ' Cinema Romantico: My Great Movies: Pieces of April

Friday, November 21, 2008

My Great Movies: Pieces of April

The Burns family, father, mother, son, daughter, grandmother, is on its way to New York City where the oldest child, April (Katie Holmes), is hosting Thanksgiving dinner. They are well into the journey and the movie, without revealing too many specifics, has made us aware the relationship between April and her family was not and is not harmonious. They are riding in their car. The mother, Joy (Patricia Clarkson), advises she can only think of a single nice memory throughout the course of her whole life involving April. She tells it: "She was about three or four, and she was sitting at the window, and she turned to me and said, 'Oh, mother, don't you just love every day?'" The daughter in the backseat, Beth (Allison Pill), makes a curious face and says, "That was me."

At this revelation, Joy loses it. She forces her husband, Jim (Oliver Platt), to stop the car and she hops out. Jim follows. Joy rants and raves about the horrendous time that was April's childhood and how disturbing it is that she does not have even one pleasant memory of her oldest daughter and can't bear the thought of actually carrying out this trip. Jim takes hold of her and states, "That's the whole point of going. We're making a memory."

The memory is so peculiar, so powerful. It remembers what it wants in the way that it wants and will revise and eliminate without discretion. As you get older lines can blur and the most unpleasant part of moments in the past are erased. Yet, this phenomenon does not just happen as you advance in age. Often you find yourself editing as the moment unfolds before you to make certain you retain only what you want.

What is it about the Thanksgiving holiday that makes for so many films about dysfunction. Sarah Vowell has written: "It is curious that we Americans have a holiday that’s all about people who left their homes for a life of their own choosing, that was different from their parents’ lives. And how do we celebrate it? By hanging out with our parents!" Fathers and mothers and brothers and sisters become determined to make this rare get-together perfect. Obviously, there are well-adjusted, balanced families who also celebrate this day but they are not as interesting. The Burns Family of writer/director Peter Hedges' "Pieces of April" is. April is determined to prepare this feast. Her dad is determined to get her family there for the feast and to enjoy it once they do. April's boyfriend Bobby (Derek Luke) is determined to finish a task of his own he won't reveal to her. Beth seems determined to ensure the entire enterprise ends in failure.

Everyone endures their own various forms of hardship. Helplessly chopping at onions and peeling potatoes, April is no expert chef (I have yet to be master of ceremonies at a Thanksgiving but, rest assured, when the day comes my attempt to stuff the turkey will end up a lot like April's) but things take an even greater turn for the worse when her oven stops working. The holiday meal in peril she turns to her neighbors for help. First, an older married couple (Lillias White and Isiah Whitlock Jr.) and a wacko with a new stove (Sean Hayes, in a performance I must admit I did not care for).

Meanwhile, out on the road, April's family encounters a dead squirrel and deals with a grandmother who is there but not really and gorges on a meal of donuts in fear of what culinary surprises await them at their ultimate destination. And then there is the biggest misfortune of all, the one hovering over the entire film - Joy has cancer and this may very well be her final Thanksgiving, her final chance to connect with April.

This could have been the film's gigantic misstep. A saccharine disease movie with Joy made out to be a saint as she and daughter hold hands at the end and all is forgotten. But writing of Hedges and, most especially, the acting by Clarkson (she was rightfully nominated for an Oscar) prevent this from happening. Yes, she lives every day with disease but of this fact she does not want to be reminded, as she is in the opening when every family member too-cheerily greets her with a "How are you feeling?" She is embittered, partially by the cancer, sure, but we also get glimpses that it might have been more than just April who caused their relationship to go off the rails. Joy compliments Beth while simultaneously sleighting her. She smokes pot with her son, Timmy (John Gallagher Jr.) to ease the pain and her following treatise on the pleasures of fictional rap icon Smack Daddy is at once humorous and load-bearing.

Joy: "He doesn't care that I'm old and sick and falling apart. He sees my soul. He's not fickle. He's there for me."
Beth: "Like dad?"
Joy: "Well, your father can't sing."

This is an exemplary writing. It is unique and could work on its own but it also comments on their marriage without explicitly saying so. The movie is packed with that type of dialogue and provides each character a specific voice, even the secondary players. The husband and wife who initially offer April the services of their oven seem to communicate with the real rhythms of a couple that have been married a long time. Additionally, Hedges is very in tune with the pattern of words people tend to use. Notice at the start when Jim cannot find Joy and bursts into Timmy's bedroom, asking "Do you know where she is?" Timmy replies, "I don't know." Pause. "Who?"

In the title role Katie Holmes too offers a solid performance. Her usual sunny persona fits in perfectly. Yes, she's got the colored hair, and the tornado-sky eyeshadow, and the tattoos, and the snakeskin boots, but she's still a girl from upstate. An upstate punk. It's why when she is searching for someone with an oven to assist that guy and girl with the black clothes and guitar cases won't help. They see through her facade.

Derek Luke plays a key role since one gets an overt sense he is a good fit for April and might be the one to have prompted this family get-together in the first place. He makes her get up and makes her take a shower and makes her start the meal. He is so upbeat about the situation that even a violent altercation on the street with April's ex cannot dim his enthusiam. When he leaves the apartment on his errand she catches him trimming the front door. "They don't deserve decorations," she says. "Yeah, but you do," he replies. All this makes it unfortunate that the film's one flaw - aside from Hayes' strange turn - is Bobby's small sidestory. In reality, he has gone out to acquire some nice clothes to make himself that much more presentable to her family. It's a sweet touch that deepens the character. Except as presented to us we're slightly tricked into thinking it might be a drug deal, or something of the sort. There was no reason for the misdirection. And the fight on the street leads to a truly awful moment where Bobby fits a crude stereotype as he greets April's unwitting family and seems to drive them away.

It's unecessary not just because it's crude but because her family seeing the apartment's unwelcoming exterior and their brief encounter with the thugs who have just beaten up Bobby would work well enough to serve as the means to cause their flight. It doesn't fatally damage the film because it isn't vital but it's an unfortunate development in an otherwise brilliant movie.

The finale left many critics dissatisfied. Stephanie Zacharek of Salon called it "rushed and a little tough to buy." I disagree with those critics. I felt the end was the film's highlight and could not and should not have been done another way because to belabor its point would have rendered it less effective.

At the beginning it is established Timmy is the photographer of the family and he has been documenting Joy's last days. Beth wonders why he has to bring his camera to April's. Joy deadpans, "So I can always remember this day." The moment at the end when mother and daughter re-unite and then when the rest of the family arrives is done in montage as if it were a series of photographs. There is one brief image of Oliver Platt standing with his arm around Katie Holmes. You so often see actors and actresses playing family members and maybe there is a passing resemblance but it so often fails to feel truly authentic. But, despite not sharing any other scenes together, in that moment they look like a real father and daughter. His eyes seem to say "Wow, she pulled this off" and her eyes seem to say "Wow, I pulled this off". It absolutely wrecks me.

You watch this sequence and you know it won't solve everything. All the rifts have not been patched up and they will all have to go through the unavoidable loss of Joy but it's okay because right now, at this moment, they can edit all that out. They've made a memory.

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