Any film that declares Krispy Kreme donuts as proof of God’s existence is a film that has much to teach us no matter what our level of metaphysical enlightenment. In this perfect film, writer/director Peter Hedges astutely observes with sardonic wit and aching emotion the two great train wrecks of family life, the car trip and Thanksgiving. Yet what should by all rights be a cataclysmic result is instead a précis on the family ties that bind, and oft times crush, that never panders to its audience. These are characters who are difficult and complex and who sometimes hit all too close to home.
Our heroine is April (Katie Holmes), the wild child of a solidly upper middle-class family that has made her feel like the first pancake, that is, the one that never turns out and gets thrown away. In her dismal apartment in an unsavory part of New York City, she is making Thanksgiving dinner for her family as an acknowledgement of their estrangement, her mother’s terminal illness, and a gesture of more hope than she can actually allow herself to muster. Said family is making its way from an undisclosed location by car, stopping along the way for mother Joy (Patricia Clarkson) to throw up in reaction to her cancer treatments, to bury roadkill, and to stop off for junk food in the certain expectation of a dismal bill of fare awaiting them at Aprils table. It’s a mixed bag, as most familys are, with the perkily passive-aggressive little sister (Alison Pill), the artsy little brother with a camera (Thomas Gallagher, Jr.), the father (Oliver Platt) who puts the best possible face on it all, and a grandmother (Alice Drummond) with just enough Alzheimer’s to let her drift in and out of lucidity.
Naturally there is disaster in the kitchen, a place April has rarely if ever been before as demonstrated by her unorthodox approach to peeling onions and mashing potatoes. But things get really interesting when she discovers that the oven won’t heat, forcing her to lug fifteen pounds of trussed bird in search of a roasting. Her neighbors, as she trudges up and down the stairs, are an interesting cross section of humanity from the prissy vegan to the grumpy Slav, each hermetically sealed in a unique universe just behind the grimy doors of the apartment building, all offer a sly take on the downside of preconceived notions and the alienation that we inflict on ourselves.
As the day progresses and emotions run high, Hedges gives us the frozen smile brought on by a harsh word, the resigned smile of hopelessness, and the bright sunshine smile of unconditional love. That last would be Bobby (Derek Luke) Aprils boyfriend, and the beating heart of the film, warmth personified and a bear hug waiting to happen. In contrast, there is Joy, whose death sentence has allowed her to dispense with the conventional niceties that make society work, hence the travel game that she devises, trying to come up with one good memory of April.
Holmes sports attitude and tattoos that don’t quite mask a longing for acceptance that she’s sure will never come. Clarkson is tough and ethereal as a woman dealing with her last Thanksgiving, looking at old pictures of herself with an angry wistfulness, playing evil practical jokes that are, oddly enough, good for everyone. Sean Hayes is noteworthy as one of April’s neighbors, a persnickety prig starring in his own personal Ibsen drama, or perhaps Strindberg, and enjoying an unwholesome attachment to his new convection oven.
Hedges sets the mood for this long day’s journey into dinner with accomplished hand-held edginess, ranging from kinetic to almost static, as the chaos of the journey gives way to another kind of chaos, but one involving oyster side dishes and gatherings as mismatched as the silverware. He plays our emotions like a virtuoso, mixing farce with tragedy with equal assurance and wisely eschewing words when silence can be more effective. There is at one point an image of a streamer slowly slipping down a staircase, taking with it the last shreds of hope in someone’s life. It’s a moment of heartbreak crystallized almost beyond our ability to bear it.
PIECES OF APRIL does not give us detente as the answer or even the goal, people here in the real world don’t seem capable of such harmony on a regular basis. Rather, he dwells on the moment, the one where everything comes together, the one that can nourish our souls for a lifetime. As Grandma, in one of her lucid moments puts it, all you need is one good memory.