Wednesday, November 5, 2003
Pieces of April / *** (2003)
Unlike what the film's title might suggest, this is actually a holiday film—set on Thanksgiving, that one day of the year when family and friends put aside any and all difference in order to come together and reflect on the positive elements of their lives. Unfortunately for title character April (Katie Holmes), trying to find any positives in her life to celebrate is as difficult as pulling teeth. When she wakes up on that November morning, however, and is faced with cooking a complete Thanksgiving dinner for her visiting family, there simply isn't enough time to dwell on positives or negatives. This day is important because of what is going on in the present: it may very well be the last time she ever sees her dying mother.
Meanwhile, the movie acquaints us with members of April's family, who are on their way from the suburbs into the city where she has personally invited them to spend the holiday with her and her boyfriend. There's Jim (Oliver Platt), the domicile father with a tendency to be pessimistic, Beth (Alison Pill), the sweet and loving sister who is sometimes too annoying for her own good, Timmy (John Gallagher, Jr.), the brother who can be equally as obnoxious as his sibling, and Grandma Dottie, a quiet old woman who every once in awhile says something wise or humorous. These are all just background players, however, in comparison to April's mother Joy, played here by the regal Patricia Clarkson. Eccentric but determined and stubborn, Joy is slowly but surely dying of breast cancer, a fact that she herself can easily overlook as well as dwell on, but one that her immediate family is never able to forget. They fawn over her every word like they're expecting her to crack at any second—a prospect, in fact, that is amplified quite poignantly late in the film when Jim leans over to check for her pulse after she falls asleep, crushed by the impending prospect of doing the same one day and finding that she has already passed away.
The movie intersects these two focuses in a plausible format—details are shelled out in either story arc at a respectable pace and balance, as each side of the family comes to terms with their pasts before they can even hope to create new memories. In the process, deeper internal conflicts are revealed; as the family makes progress down the large stretches of road, Joy realizes she doesn't have one pleasant memory left of April, and while April herself is rushing around trying to put together a sizable meal without the benefit of a working stove, all she can remember is how she and her mother could never get along on anything. These kinds of memories have obviously inflicted enough damage to keep them apart for so long, and eventually it becomes not a question of how either side will meet up in the end, but if either of them will meet up at all. How, after all, can you spend a holiday with someone if you can't even remember what you like about them?
The movie is carried by a lot of solid storytelling, but its character-driven approach is garnished even further by two award-worthy performances from its lead stars. Patricia Clarkson, charming and satisfying as she always is, plays Joy here in a manner that doesn't warrant sympathy beyond the surface; though she is suffering from her illness, there are traits beneath it all that both throw us off the sympathy track and suggest that she refuses to be pitied for something that she still hasn't lost the battle against. On a surprisingly positive note, Katie Holmes is virtually unrecognizable as the equally stubborn and flawed daughter April; unlike the countless roles her career has been filled with, she genuinely seems immersed in her persona's crisis and plays it off convincingly. To say that this is so far the best performance of her still-young career is an understatement.
The movie does contain some narrative dead weight (such a subplot involving April's boyfriend, played by Derek Luke, that encourages all sorts of stereotypical assumptions), but that's excusable stuff. What is not so easily forgotten, however, is the movie's lack of visual presence. On the surface, "Pieces of April" doesn't even look like a motion picture, but more like audition footage spliced together by amateurish photographers who don't know a thing about lighting or cinematography. In the end, the grainy digital look of the film might have been excused had it at least maintained a sense of stability (particularly during the more serious parts of the story), but the fact that it doesn't is something that simply can't be ignored. This is a solid and affectionate little holiday movie with a lot of spirit and heart, but one that might have been much better if not for the fact that the visuals almost annihilate the narrative.
Written by DAVID KEYES
Cast & Crew info:
Katie Holmes: April Burns
Patricia Clarkson: Joy Burns
Oliver Platt: Jim Burns
Derek Luke: Bobby
Sean Hayes: Wayne
Alison Pill: Beth Burns
John Gallagher Jr.: Timmy Burns
Alice Drummond: Grandma Dottie
Lillias White: Evette
Produced by Alexis Alexanian, Lucy Barzun, Dianne Dreyer, Caroline Kaplan, John S. Lyons, Jonathan Sehring, John Sloss, Lucille Masone Smith and Gary Winick; Directed and written by Peter Hedges
Drama (US); Rated PG-13 for language, sensuality, drug content and images of nudity; Running Time - 81 Minutes