Santa Cruz Good Times

Apr 21st
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Thanks For the Angst

Peter Hedges takes a swing at directing and delivers a moving spectacle with ‘Pieces of April’

If you’ve ever wondered why those Kodak Moments never really feel like Kodak Moments—especially during the holidays when family gatherings are more frequent and, for some, a bit mindbending—then Pieces of April will certainly resonate. However, first-time director Peter Hedges’ heartwarming film isn’t only designed for those who can appreciate and be amused by family dysfunction or the thirst for sanity in seemingly insane situations. (Admit it, you only get annoyed when Aunt Frida, between psychotic breaks, chews her food before she feeds it to her darling Liza, that old, toothless, balding pet poodle hiding underneath the dinner table.)

Pieces of April is a triumph for other reasons. It’s realistic. More importantly, it’s believable. The actors shine. The script, penned by Hedges (What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, About a Boy) is a lovely mosaic of all the torment and sorrow and hope and desire many of us feel when dealing with certain family members who’ve failed to live up to our expectations. When most directors would have played a movie about family over- the-top, Hedges surprises by taking the road less traveled, delivering an understated, often humorous opus with true grace.

The story takes place on Thanksgiving Day. April (a magnificent Katie Holmes) nervously preps the big meal for her family, en route. Distracted, April is entirely oblivious to her boyfriend Bobby’s (Derek Luke) soothing remarks. She fumbles with the bird, the stuffing and everything else involved in creating what she hopes will be a fabulous meal, perhaps the one that will, at last, win the respect and love, she’s been craving from her kin, and especially from her mother Joy, played by Patricia Clarkson who turns in yet another powerful performance here. When Bobby jaunts off to do some “errands,” April’s Turkey Day Karma delivers a swift slap—her oven doesn’t work and she finds herself bopping from one apartment to another, begging the tenants for use of their stove. One quirky neighbor (Sean Hayes) surprises by holding her turkey hostage; her vegan neighbor recites the 411 on what’s foul about fowl. While April frantically spins out of control, her family—mom (ill), dad (an in-denial Oliver Platt), bro (immature), sis (the emotional sponge) and grandma (stricken with Alzheimers)—experience a different angst on their roadtrip to New York City, where April resides. For starters, Joy the matriarch (Clarkson) has cancer, and after rounds of chemotherapy, the only way “out,” it seems, is “through”—in this case, it’s accepting that death has become an unshakeable reality. Joy’s occasional nausea forces a few pitstops along the interstate, where the family share memories of times better spent, and April—obviously the problem child, April’s bout with drugs and surviving adolescence definitely left their mark on this clan. Nobody believes she can redeem herself and it’s a real effort, it seems, for the family to embark on this trip and sit down to the Thanksgiving meal April is prepping. In these scenes Hedges shows us how easy and hard it easy for any family to “write-off” the “blacksheep.” Even Joy struggles to recall one rewarding moment she’s experienced with April. Yet, they all venture forward to what will most likely be the family’s last Thanksgiving meal with Joy. And so the movie goes, rotating scenes between April’s quest to get the bird cooked and the family that can’t quite generate some excitement to see her. (Sound familiar?)

Hedges initially came up with the idea for April after hearing a story about several New Yorkers battling a faulty oven, and how they were forced to ask strangers in their apartment building for assistance. He filed away the thought, but after his own mother in Iowa was diagnosed with cancer, he found himself revisited the concept, and eventually created a story that encompassed both stories, a tale that tossed a bunch of very different people together in a believable way.

“I wanted to make a movie about how we’re running out of time, and how we say—without words—‘Thank you’ and ‘I’m sorry’ and ‘Goodbye,’” Hedges says of April. “Movies rarely deal with how people actually die, or they fight to live. There’s a lot more anger and a lot more humor than you realize. I set out to tell a story that would feel very real, because that’s what I wanted to see.”

Hedges’ vision is perfectly translated on screen. Using mostly handheld digital cameras, the film leans more toward the relaxed; nothing feels forced and throughout the film, as April discovers the importance of family and the importance of being vulnerable, it is apparent that what Hedges is trying to say, is, that it’s OK to love people.

This works, too, because Holmes brings a sense of desperation and “I-don’t-give-a-damn” to the role. She emerges from the murky, sappy waters of Dawson’s Creek and pop culture and proves she is a film actress whose star is really just beginning to rise.

“There was the notion of April, a month where the weather changes a lot,” Hedges says of casting Holmes. “I knew I wanted a really moody, volatile, spectacular girl that could cry one minute and laugh the next.”

And Holmes does that, quite well, and it’s hard not to be absorbed by the vast amount of space her emotional barometer moves.

There is a moment when April, desperate for the use of a Chinese tenant’s oven—to cook the darn bird; to get on with the day; to please her family; to offer her mother one good thing before she dies—ponders the importance of the day and muses “ … there was this one day where everyone seemed to know they needed each other. This one day when they knew for certain they couldn't do it alone.”

We’ve all had those days. But when Hedges speaks of his film illuminates how, sometimes, it’s important for people to do the “unthinkable,” you begin to see what Pieces of April is all about.

“[You must do] the thing you don’t think you can do … find a way to do it,” he says. “On a smaller scale, [this film] is about how a mother and daughter find their way back to one another, but it’s also about a family, how they deal with unattainable truths and how we are all proceed when our lives are no longer in our control. And it’s about how we can surprise ourselves.  It’s about how we love and what might happen if we don’t.”

Pieces of April plays at the Nick. *** 1/2 (out of four)

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