Year of Release: 2003 Directed by Peter Hedges. Starring Katie Holmes, Patricia Clarkson, Oliver Platt, Alison Pill, John Gallagher Jr., and Derek Luke.
Pieces of April is a delightful, funny, heart-wrenching, and ultimately uplifting film that is sadly not nearly as well known as it should be.
After living on her own for a year in a dumpy section of New York, April (Katie Holmes) has resolved that she is going to cook her first Thanksgiving dinner for her estranged family, with whom she has had a tempestuous relationship to put it mildly. Having ended her drug abuse and broken up with her dealer boyfriend, she now has her own apartment with a new boyfriend. Given her mom’s (Patricia Clarkson) cancer, April wants to mend those bonds as well.
However, as April’s younger sister Beth (Alison Pill) constantly reminds her family, April cannot cook. Since their mom is too sick to cook a big meal, Beth should be the one cooking, after all, she passed home economics, which April miserably failed.
Their mother reassures Beth and the rest of the family that driving to April’s apartment and letting her cook is the best option, because “This way, instead of April showing up with some new piercing or some ugly new tattoo and, God forbid, staying overnight, this way, we get to show up, experience the disaster that is her life, smile through it, and before you know it, we’re on our way back home.”
Now I called this film funny. So far, I do not think I’m making it sound funny. April’s good-hearted, but inexperienced attempts at cooking truly are hilarious, especially for anyone who’s ever botched a difficult recipe on a first attempt. Her most foolish culinary decisions simultaneously evoke laughter and sympathy. April’s desire to make a simple gift of a meal to her family is truly touching, but trying to mash raw potatoes, placing hot stuffing in a turkey with your bare hands, cramming uncut stalks of celery into the stuffing, and insisting that cranberry sauce out of a jar tastes just as good as homemade is genuinely funny.
April’s troubles do not end with her lack of cooking experience. Right as she is about to start cooking the turkey, she discovers her oven is not working, and she frantically asks her neighbors if she can use one of their ovens. During her search, she meets people even more selfish than anyone in her family, but she also encounters people who aid her with surprising acts of compassion and generosity. April’s interactions with her neighbors are made all the more tense due to the anxiety she feels over seeing her family for the first time in almost a year.
Even though April wants to see her family and please them with her cooking, she is still bitter towards them for their lack of support and afraid that she will never be good enough for them. As she makes place cards, she writes “Mom” on one, and then throws it away, replacing it with one that reads “Joy.” On the other hand, she exhibits the giddy nervousness of a child as she decorates her apartment hallways with balloons, streamers, and drawings.
In many ways, April is still a child, but she is a child whose foolish decisions and uncompassionate family forced her to grow up too quickly, losing important years with her family. The resulting tension and April’s desire for reconciliation is portrayed by masterful cutting between April preparing Thanksgiving dinner and her family driving to New York, dreading how awful this Thanksgiving is going to be. April’s father (Oliver Platt) is the only one who has any hope that his daughter might succeed, and even he is easily quieted as his wife and younger daughter remind him of all April’s failures, which obviously weaken his resolve.
The unease between April and her family is illustrated when her Asian neighbors ask her what Americans celebrate on Thanksgiving. She tries to tell the story of the first Thanksgiving three times. First, she describes the big harvest and celebration; then she mentions the Pilgrims getting as much food and knowledge from the Native Americans before stealing all their land. Finally, sensing the confusion of her neighbors, she simply concludes the holiday exists as a memorial to a time when everyone came together to celebrate, in recognition of how much they needed everyone else to survive.
The unique blend of humor and pathos pulled off a rare achievement by making me laugh and cry simultaneously. I don’t think that’s ever happened to me before.
Content Advisory: An out of frame sex scene, drug use, some strong vulgar language, cohabitation, photos of medical nudity, and themes of intense family discord. MPAA rating: PG-13
Suggested Audience: Teens and up with discernment
Personal Recommendation: A-