Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Movie Review: "Pieces of April" (2003)

Director: Peter Hedges
Year: 2003
Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 1 hour, 20 minutes

In an effort to reconnect with her estranged, dysfunctional, complicated family, April Burns has offered to host Thanksgiving dinner at her small apartment in a not-so-great neighborhood in New York City.

Pieces of April 2003 movie still Katie Holmes
"They're probably not even going to come." (Image Source)
In recent years, it has become a"bit" to trade Thanksgiving day horror stories with other users online who probably had it worse. If Twitter existed in 2003, April Burns surely would have been the winner that year. "Pieces of April" is directed by Peter Hedges in his directorial debut. He also wrote the screenplay for this film, and also wrote the Oscar-nominated script for 2002's "About a Boy." This story revolves around the previously mentioned April Burns (Katie Holmes), a woman who lives in a tiny, terrible apartment with her boyfriend Bobby (Derek Luke) in a bad neighborhood in the heart of New York City. April is estranged from her exceedingly flawed family, including her mom Joy (Patricia Clarkson), who has resented her for years, her dad Jim (Oliver Platt), the only person who ever has anything nice to say about her, her younger sister Beth (Alison Pill), and her younger brother Timmy (John Gallagher Jr.). Joy has late-stage breast cancer and is undergoing chemotherapy, so April has offered to host Thanksgiving at her lowly apartment in the city. While the Burns clan makes every possible attempt to usurp her supper plans on the long drive to her place, April is busy dealing with a set of inept cooking skills, years worth of built-up anger and trauma, and a broken oven that forces her to go door-to-door asking her neighbors if she can use theirs.
Pieces of April 2003 movie still Patricia Clarkson Oliver Platt
"Apart from your weight problems, we're practically the same person." (Image Source)
Not very many films about Thanksgiving exist, especially compared to the dozens of flicks about every other holiday. There's the obvious annual-watch choice ("Planes, Trains, and Automobiles"), the movie everyone thinks is about Christmas when actually it's not ("Home for the Holidays"), the kid-friendly pick ("Free Birds"), the horror-centric option only enthusiasts of the genre will care to add to their annual turkey day rotation ("Thankskilling"), and maybe one or two more, plus "Pieces of April." We had never seen this movie, but on the recommendation of a trusted cinephile friend (thanks, Ian!), we decided to give it a whirl.
Pieces of April 2003 movie still Katie Holmes Derek Luke
"Bobby, they don't deserve decorations." (Image Source)
This is a turbulent, semi-disastrous family com-dram that has roots in the overly zany, the unimaginably salty, and the heartbreakingly realistic. From the moment the movie begins, we could tell we were in for a roller coaster of emotions, and that's before we learn that Clarkson's Joy is sick with cancer. There are some deep-seated animosities in the Burns family, though no one will ever confront each other to their face. April is clearly a wild child who grew apart from her family when she followed a path of self-destruction, drugs, and bad behavior (something about "cutting Timmy's bangs with a lighter" is mentioned in passing). She has every box in the "2003 good girl gone bad" checklist ticked: thick black eyeliner to go with an even thicker choker necklace, a shabby apartment in the city, a live-in boyfriend, a grunge-meets-emo dressing style, a cherry neck tattoo, and what seems like decades-long resentment that would need even longer therapy sessions to work out. Holmes is strangely perfect for this role, the complete opposite of Joey, the part she played on the long-winded series "Dawson's Creek," who was similar to April's sister Beth in this film. Joy, on the other hand, has always been "kind and soft-spoken." "Not anymore," she remarks to her mother (Alice Drummond) in the car ride to the city. And really, there's no point since she's dying, and this may very well be her final Thanksgiving, so she's going to say what she feels at any cost no matter who she's hurting. We have seen this cliche time and time again in movies where someone who is gravely ill uses their sickness as an excuse to be an asshole. Let us tell you, it works, painfully well here. Joy's dagger-sharp harsh words about her eldest daughter are enough to make you cringe and cry...for both of them. Clarkson delivers her anguish pointedly and sells Joy's hurting so well that she was nominated for Best Supporting Actress for her efforts in this movie. April is also hurting in her own way, so in a last-ditch-effort to mend long-broken fences, she offers to host a Thanksgiving she is ill-equipt to host. April doesn't have the culinary expertise she needs to whip up such a feast, and she doesn't have the physical space to have that many people in her house...but wouldn't you volunteer to make dinner for your terminal mother after years apart if it might be her last, even if it means you have to go door to door to the apartments of strangers trying to find an oven that will fit your big dumb turkey? Platt's Jim is April's only supporter, though it is implied that he tends to side with Joy in matters involving their absent eldest. Beth is also bitter about how April has treated their family over the years and has spent her entire life trying to be the opposite of big sis. And Timmy? Timmy is the one cracking the jokes and helping his mom spark up in a gas station bathroom to alleviate some of her pain, physical and otherwise, all while photographing and documenting their crazy family with his new camera. It's an interesting balance between mean-spirited, miserable, and dysfunctional, but also comes together in an oddly endearing, tender way.
Pieces of April 2003 movie still Katie Holmes Patricia Clarkson Oliver Platt Alison Pill
"I can't have another bad experience with her." (Image Source)
We thoroughly enjoyed "Pieces of April." Though it can get a bit over-dramatic and a skosh too wacky at times, it's a story that works, and it all feels real due to the excellent performances from everyone involved. The writing is harsh at times, sweet at others. It feels very much like a product of its time but is also a universal tale of a family in disarray that has been and will continue to be told for years to come. Peter Hedges did quite a lot with just a 16-day shoot and $100,000 budget.

My Rating: 7.5/10
BigJ's Rating: 7/10
IMDB's Rating: 7.1/10
RT Rating: 84%
Do we recommend this movie: Yes!

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