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Pieces of April portrays the
reunion of 21-year-old April with her mother at Thanksgiving. April, played by Katie Holmes, lives with
her boyfriend, Bobby, on the Lower East Side in Manhattan. She has never got on well with her mother,
played by Patricia Clarkson, but her father, played by Oliver Platt, has
stressed to her how important this year is.
Her mother has cancer and she may not live much longer. April's family -- her father, brother,
sister, and grandmother -- get into the station wagon and drive from the
suburbs to the city. They feel a great
deal of apprehension about the visit, since they can't recall any good memories
April also is anxious about her
family coming, especially since she has never cooked a turkey before. Then when she puts it in the oven she
discovers the oven is broken, and so she goes around her apartment building
from door to door asking if she can use other people's ovens. Part of the comedy of the film is April's
difficulty in finding someone to help her and her dealing with the different
eccentric characters. The other
families in the building are often friendly, but it is not necessarily so easy to
overcome language and cultural differences.
So the bulk of the film shows two
parallel quests: April tries to cook the bird and prepare the meal, while her
family try to get to her apartment. The
film shifts from one to the other, and it isn't clear until the last moments of
the film that either will be successful.
The acting in the film is stunning, showing the tensions between the
different characters. As Hedges points
out in his director's commentary, Clarkson pushes the audience to the edge,
defying them and her family to dislike her. The fact that she is dying gives her permission to state the truth
and say things that polite families don't say.
Her younger daughter is the good child who puts other people's needs
ahead of her own, while her son complains more about their trip, and her
mother, who has Alzheimer's, has difficulty remembering who everyone is. Her husband is long suffering and of course
is very worried about what the future holds.
He is the one who has insisted that this family trip should go ahead,
because it will be an important memory for them all.
Hedges' film is so wonderful
because it combines the humor of dysfunctional families with the pain of
disappointed expectations and the final success of making the family reunion
work. It was shot on a tight budget in
16 days, using digital cameras, but this probably adds to the power of the
movie. Hedges' commentary is not
enormously revealing -- he gushes a little too much about his actors and crew
-- but he does explain how the story was inspired by his own mother's cancer. His mother was very encouraging about the
making of the film and even helped find the turkey salt and pepper shakers to
be used in April's apartment, and one does get a sense of his deeply personal
connection to the story. He did give
some of his mother's words in the script to Clarkson's character, Joy, and
knowing that they are directly from life does add to their authenticity.
One of the great virtues of the
film are the songs by Stephen Merritt.
Some are from "69 Love Songs" by Magnetic Fields, while others
are performed by other artists and some were specially composed. The music, which plays in April's apartment
as she listens to her CDs, is sweet and sorrowful and fits the story very well.
As a film that deals humorously and
sensitively with grief, death, fractured families and reconciliation, Pieces
of April is a gem. The moment when
April finally goes to the door of her apartment and finds her mother there is
so powerful, and the expression on Holmes' face is unforgettable. It makes you believe that it might even be
worth trying to bring dysfunctional families together every once in a
while. As Hedges says, it is about life
and love, the spirit of moving on and making peace.
© 2005 Christian Perring. All rights reserved.
Christian Perring, Ph.D., is Academic Chair of
the Arts & Humanities Division and Chair of the Philosophy Department at
Dowling College, Long Island. He is also editor of Metapsychology Online
Review. His main research is on philosophical issues in medicine,
psychiatry and psychology.