Posted by Richard Harland Smith on November 22, 2012
Mind you, the category of Thanksgiving movies is slim enough that it makes this an easy call. A major American holiday customarily fobbed off as second string in films (or used as a first act in a narrative push towards Christmas, a la MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET), Turkey Day is traditionally dispensed with in a scene or two (HOLIDAY INN, GIANT, THE ICE STORM, ADDAMS FAMILY VALUES) or used as a wraparound leitmotif (HANNAH AND HER SISTERS, BROADWAY DANNY ROSE). There’s PILGRIM ADVENTURE (1950), of course. Do the pilgrims eat Thanksgiving dinner at the end of PILGRIM ADVENTURE? I don’t know, as I’ve never watched the whole thing. It is my belief that no one has ever watched all of PILGRIM ADVENTURE. You can probably count on the fingers of one hand — the one you use to make your turkey cut-out — the number of Hollywood or Off-Hollywood films that foreground Thanksgiving: PLANES, TRAINS & AUTOMOBILES (1987), HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS (1995), THE HOUSE OF YES (1997)… and PIECES OF APRIL (2003). Let the celebration begin!
PIECES OF APRIL stars Katie Holmes — in that fleeting period of grace between the end of her long-running WB Network series DAWSON’S CREEK and her professional redefinition as Mrs. Tom Cruise — playing the oldest daughter of suburbanites Patricia Clarkson and Oliver Platt, a Lower East Side boho wannabe scratching out a quasi-artistic living in a tumbledown tenement walk-up. Learning that her mother has terminal cancer, April attempts to make amends for years of bad blood and boiling resentment by preparing Thanksgiving dinner for her whole family, whose number includes younger brother John Gallagher, Jr., middle sibling Alison Pill (who, like Gallagher, appears in the Aaron Sorkin series THE NEWSROOM), and grandmother Alice Drummond (GHOSTBUSTERS). Calamity strikes — as it must — when April learns that the oven she has never used does not actually work… forcing her to go from door to door in her building on Thanksgiving morning begging to borrow a stove. Meanwhile, April’s boyfriend (ANTWONE FISHER star Derek Luke) sets out to find a suitable set of clothes in which to meet his prospective in-laws and the highly (of course) dysfunctional Burns family wends its way from its sleepy bedroom community to Manhattan’s mean streets.
PIECES OF APRIL was a personal project for novelist turned screenwriter and (here) feature film director Peter Hedges. Hedges had provided the source material for Lasse Hallström’s WHAT’S EATING GILBERT GRAPE (1993 – my God, 20 years old!) and wrote Chris and Paul Weitz’s ABOUT A BOY (2002), adapting the bestselling novel by Nick Hornby. PIECES OF APRIL gave the (then) recent Academy Award nominee the perfect break-out opportunity, lensing a small gauge, mostly single setting feature (with a few picture postcard sidebars) with a handful of (mostly) theatrically-trained actors. And PIECES OF APRIL is delightfully small scale, attuned and attentive to textures and the nuances of its principal players while adopting an ever so slight (I’d estimate about 11%) aura of magic realism that keeps the film from degrading into a kitchen sink slog through Depressionville. Hedges would branch out (ha! You’ll know in a moment what a delightful pun this is!) in this direction more forcefully with his recent THE ODD LIFE OF TIMOTHY GREEN (2012). See? See what I did there?
To be perfectly honest with you, when I first sat down with PIECES OF APRIL a decade ago I was hating it through and through. I came to the film in the form of an Academy screener, so it was just me, my future wife Barbara, and the judgmental cone of our Upper East Side New York apartment. From its earliest frames, there was an indie pic preciousness that set my teeth on edge, as if Hedges and his cast and crew were saying to me (through my TV) “Oooh, we’re making a small fillum!” I felt then, as I do now, that PIECES OF APRIL is hagged by smart-assed curlicues that curry favor with the film festival set, indicative of a condescension towards suburban living, towards doughnut shops and family-style chain restaurants. I was also irked by the performance of Patricia Clarkson, as April’s failing but robustly sardonic mother. In the spirit of full disclosure, however, I confess to having had a disagreeable personal encounter with Clarkson a few months earlier, so that may have been part of it, too. I still think all of my grievances with PIECES OF APRIL are applicable, I don’t think I’m wrong (the Sean Hayes subplot feels out of step with the rest of the film, which doesn’t need a villain, much less the one-note variety)… and yet I’ve learned to forgive the film for its perceived shortcomings and to appreciate, and be thankful for, what is there.
Its Stone Soup structure allows PIECES OF APRIL to give you a glimpse into the lives of many people, among them the delightful older couple played by Lillias White (whom I had seen years earlier in her Tony award-winning role in the short-lived Broadway play THE LIFE) and Isiah Whitlock, Jr. (THE WIRE, CEDAR RAPIDS), whose reluctant kindness to the desperate and clueless April sets the film in motion after a first act of (intentional) false starts. The warmth and humor shared by Evette and Eugene fills their cramped efficiency kitchen and its this pulse, this palpable sign of life that redeems PIECES OF APRIL for me. End to end, the film reminds me of my own holiday celebrations as a near-20 year resident of New York City, those healing get-togethers of my found family, those gatherings where there was barely enough room, barely enough food, and yet never less than an excess of love and gratitude. From the evidence on hand, none of the tenement residents in PIECES OF APRIL knows one another until April, in her helplessness, uncooked turkey in hand, begins knocking on doors. It’s when those doors open that another day on the calendar becomes a true holiday.
I don’t think it’s too much of a spoiler to say that the ending of PIECES OF APRIL absolutely devastated me. Maybe because I wasn’t expecting it. Maybe because I had sat there for the preceding 76 or 77 minutes being all mad and wearing my judgment face. Or maybe because Hedges and his collaborators stopped pushing so hard and made the decision, to quote Billy Joel, to leave a tender moment alone. Or maybe it was all of the above. Now, be not afraid… nobody dies in the movie, it’s not all heavy and cod solemn and TV movie-of-the-weeky in the way you might suspect. I won’t say exactly what Hedges does in the final frames but I will say that his choice changed the way I felt about the movie I had just watched. It made it all better. It put me in a forgiving mood, in which I was able to see not what I thought the movie lacked but what it offered me. And it made me feel grateful and glad to have spent my time with these people. In the spirit of Thanksgiving, I offer you this and hope you will make room for it on your holiday table. Figuratively speaking, of course.
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