Written and directed by Peter Hedges. Starring Katie Holmes, Derek Luke, Patricia Clarkson, and Oliver Platt.
April’s cooking Thanksgiving dinner for the first time, and she’s in trouble. She’s moved away from her suburban home to live the bohemian life in New York, picked up a wonderful boyfriend, and appears to be adjusting well. But she’s living just above the poverty line, her boyfriend’s black, and the neighborhood to which she’s adjusted has seen better days. Add to this her family’s low expectations about her life, April’s simmering resentments about her family in turn, the fact that her mother is dying of cancer, and the fact that April barely has a turkey (much less any of the other accoutrements), and the young woman appears to be looking headlong at disaster. If she’s going to pull this off without killing someone, April’s gonna need some help.
In Pieces of April, Peter Hedges and crew shows how April (Katie Holmes) gets through a city Thanksgiving. He does so without resorting either to sappiness or snide cynicism. Instead, he’s made a funny, charming, and bracing holiday film, one that subverts holiday-movie clichés at every turn.
The first subversion comes in the movie’s look. Rather than using soft focuses, rosy glows, and shiny surfaces, Pieces of April’s vision is decidedly grungier. Shot on digital video, and often handheld at that, Hedges reminds us that the medium can be good for emotional and visual intimacy. The movie crosscuts between two narratives set in tight spaces—a station wagon and April’s dingy, too-small apartment—and the DV is a good conduit for capturing the ways in which light glances off faces, dusty furniture, wrinkled clothing, and loose floorboards. DV makes light appear flatter and less vivid than it probably is, which makes even the most artificial settings appear more natural.
Obviously, in working with vast panoramas or grandiose visions, this trait is a shortcoming. But here Hedges and crew attune their eyes to small, almost-unnoticed details such as facial tics and the nervousness at the edge of a character’s eyes. The slight grain, and occasional blur during fast motion, force the viewer to move in closer to the screen, to lean into the movie. Even when not using close-ups, Hedges’s camera trains us to recognize that his sense of the holiday will be closer visually and emotionally to Italian neo-realism than to a Hallmark Special.
The characterization won’t let us take much for granted, either, starting with April. She draws us to her, to a large degree because of—not in spite of—her faults. As April, Holmes is by turns sexy, spiky, angry, and tender. She comes across not as the spoiled, reflexively combative brat her family thinks she is, but an endearing young woman whose interests happen to conflict with those of her family. Her eyes exude no-nonsense, but her mouth quivers with neediness. Holmes speaks April’s lines like a girl who desperately wants to sound like a woman, and her every intonation is funny. Holmes understands that the character isn’t quite an adult yet—she’s clearly got something to prove to her family, damn it; that right there confirms that she’s still emotionally an adolescent—but she’s on the cusp of emotional maturity. As April mutters under her breath about her parents, Holmes gets us to realize that this spat-out anger is largely self-directed. It’s a marvelous, cagey performance.
Trusting that the narrative demands of the generic Thanksgiving-movie plot will take care of themselves, Hedges focuses instead on rounded performances and characterization. He imbues his people with more depth and precision than those in movies twice the length of Pieces of April. (The movie is barely 80 minutes long.) Patricia Clarkson, as April’s bitter, cancer-ridden mom is cruel and hilarious, usually in the same breath. She makes you sympathize with her character, but her verbal bites—like a snapping turtle, but faster and more lethal—allow us to understand why April can’t stand to be around her for long. (At the same time, we also comprehend that April—also caustic and ferociously funny—has inherited more from her mother than she’s willing to admit.) Oliver Platt, as the father doing his best to keep the family from flying apart, exudes gentleness and warmth, while remaining firm.
It’s in the supporting cast, however, that Pieces of April makes a leap beyond the standard holiday fare, and becomes something much more profound. April’s building is full of life. Specifically, it’s full of colorful life—the tenement includes a broad mix of races and ethnicities, who more or less cohabitate peacefully. Some critics have complained that these multicultural apartment dwellers are little more than window dressing, Magical Negroes who are employed to conveniently help out the white girl in her time of need.
This is nonsense. Each character resonates, and Hedges’s quick but assertive camera provides enough for us to grasp a lifetime of backstory in furtive glimpses and deliciously timed lines. (I could easily imagine a good movie built around each of them.) As April reaches out to her neighbors for help in creating this Thanksgiving dinner, we see that the brown and beige folks she calls on are not mere ciphers but instead rich characters, and Hedges gives them the good lines and physical space needed to establish themselves.
In fact, if anyone is a cipher, it’s April. Pieces of April smoothly segues from holiday fodder to a racial allegory, one in which the white girl (Holmes) is initially a cultural blank slate. She becomes more interesting and more mature as she increasingly interacts with the black, Asian, gay, and Hispanic characters around her. Tellingly, the straight white folks are the least helpful, and even Sean Hayes (at his flaming best, better than he is on Will & Grace because he’s more tightlipped) turns out to be a scoundrel. As April traipses through the apartment building, she tries to explain what Thanksgiving means—in an especially funny scene, Holmes gives various versions of the story to a Korean family that can’t understand English—and ultimately comes to understand that the holiday represents the time, simply and finally, when “we realized that we all needed each other.”
The white girl doesn’t so much use the colored folks for her own ends as she comes to realize that she needs them to complete herself, and vice versa. They becomes, almost literally, pieces of her. She draws strength, guidance, and maturity from nearly everyone in the building and, in the process, develops a forceful personality. Indeed, as she toughens up and grows up throughout the day, she gets funnier and more distinct as a character.
The successful feast—April’s ritualistic ascension into adulthood—only comes when she learns to rely on others, particularly others outside of her racial and social worldview. (She converges with her family members only at the end—in the context of the movie, they aren’t part of April’s growth.) As a full-fledged adult now capable of handling heartache and holiness, April turns the tables on everyone at the end by sharing her feast with the apartment dwellers. It’s clear: these folks are her extended family. They are parts of her, and helped make her who she is, almost as much as her biological family did. The fact that everyone here eats in peace and gratefulness underscores, quietly, the less-acknowledged fact—that the nonwhite folks need April, too.
This symbiotic relationship is best expressed by April’s relationship with her boyfriend Bobby (the sweet, tough Derek Luke). Hedges is matter-of-fact about their romance. April and Bobby are clearly settled in as a couple—there’s no soap-opera histrionics about interracial love here, no Afterschool-Special schmaltz, no Othello-like tragedy in store for them. They’re built to last precisely because they understand and respect their differences. Bobby feels like a real boyfriend—as with April’s neighbors, he’s not designed solely to make April a better person—with honest desire and concrete affection. (The movie’s flat-out funniest scene is when April and Bobby make love—she initiates it, by the way—and she recites the recipes she’ll be cooking as she comes.) April and Bobby are two people who feed and nourish each other.
The couple extends that sort of relationship to the rest of the world. April starts off white and isolated from those around her, but ends the day as a true Omni-American, connected at the root to the community in which she lives.
Related reading: Last year, I argued against traditional Thanksgiving cuisine.