One of my favorite Thanksgiving films is this touching story of a young woman, estranged from her family, who invites them to Thanksgiving dinner at her apartment.
I love movies that don’t feel like they have to tell you everything.
“Pieces of April” is a movie that does more than trust its audience; it invites the audience to participate by bringing their own ideas and experiences to fill in the story.
It takes place on that most terrifying of holidays, Thanksgiving. April (Katie Holmes) and Bobby (Derek Luke) wake up very early in their apartment on the Lower East Side of New York. He is looking forward to hosting the family and she is not. This is because it is her family that is coming.
April and Bobby start to get things ready, and then he leaves because he has “that thing” he has to do. As soon as he goes, April discovers that her oven does not work. She has to wander through her apartment building, her turkey dressed and stuffed but still raw, trying to find someone who will allow her to borrow an oven.
Meanwhile, her family is on its all-but-inexorable way from the Pennsylvania suburbs, no happier about it than she is. Joy (Patricia Clarkson), April’s mother, has cancer. This will probably be her last Thanksgiving. She and April have never been comfortable with each other and both are overwhelmed by the fear that they will not be able to find a way to make it work this time. One desperately needs a good memory to die with and one desperately needs a good memory to live with.
The family drives to New York: daughter Beth (Alison Pill) trying to be perfect, son Timmy (John Gallagher, Jr.) trying to remove himself by taking pictures of everything, dad Jim (Oliver Platt) trying to keep everyone happy, and Joy’s mother (Alice Drummond), trying to hold on to her own memories, and Joy, angry and bitter and trying not to try anymore.
The film is shot on digital video, which gives it intimacy and a little messiness. It’s easy to believe that it is a home movie. The performances are fresh and unaffected. The look on Pill’s face as she tries to maintain her cheerful demeanor after her feelings are hurt; Jim’s eyes as he looks over at Joy, not sure whether she is sleeping or dead; Bobby’s description of being in love, the neighbors’ cooking advice, April’s explanation of Thanksgiving to a Chinese family, and especially the lovely last scene are moments that are real and touching and meaningful.
Parents should know that the movie has some strong language and some off-screen violence. A character uses medicinal marijuana. There are some brief graphic images. The themes of the film may be difficult for some viewers. One of the movie’s great strengths is its non-stereotyped portrayals of minorities, including one of the most often stereotyped minorities portrayed in movies, terminally ill people. African American and Asian characters are vivid and complete individuals. The movie cleverly (and sweetly) confounds the audiences’ expectations for one African American character.
Families who see this movie should talk about its theme of memories. What are some of your favorite memories and what memories do you most want to make? They should also talk about how each member of the family reacted to Joy’s illness (including Joy) and what it says about them and their relationship to the family.
Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy other Thanksgiving movies about family stress like Hannah and Her Sisters, Avalon, Home for the Holidays, and especially What’s Cooking, by the writer/director of Bend it Like Beckham.