A Piece of Luck

in 39th Chicago International Film Festival

by Pia Horlacher

With his directorial debut “Pieces of April” Peter Hedges confirms not only his reputation as an accomplished screenwriter (“What’s Eating Gilbert Grape”, “About a Boy”), but also turns out to be a talented director.

As George Perry, our British colleague on the jury for the New Directors’ programme, writes in Losing the Plot, his overview of this festival section: we have not exactly been spoiled with fine storytelling or even just the fundamental economics of narrative. Amidst the many dark meanderings of young filmmakers who seemed not to have much to say but wanted to say their piece anyway, Peter Hedges “Pieces of April” stuck out as one of the few examples to the contrary. A formally deceptively simple story about one day – Thanksgiving – in the life of a family, it managed nonetheless to say a great deal about the workings of relationships in that endangered institution of society that poet Philip Larkin called the great ‘fucker up’ of human beings – long before the term dysfunctional families became a household word.

Now the family and its potentially large scale of actions and emotions is a topic by no means new to the cinema – and therefore all the more difficult to tackle in ways that have not already been trodden by many and many times before. Like Ettore Scola, the masterly Italian director of one of the great films on the subject, “La famiglia”, Peter Hedges finds largeness of scope in confinement. Where Scola let four generations and almost a whole century come to life in one cramped apartment from which he never strayed, Peter Hedges has a less radical but not dissimilar approach. The unity of place, time and action he adheres to is almost classical, even if this does not seem so at first when we are introduced into two worlds apparently wholly apart.

April’s (Katie Holmes) world is the slummy world of thousands of young people in harsh big cities who are on the brink of either making it or breaking it: the possibility of falling into a life of unemployment, poverty and drugs lies just around the corner of April’s dilapidated Lower East Side flat which she shares with her Afro-American boyfriend Bobby (Derek Luke). That is at least how her nice, middle class family from nice, middle class American suburbia views it. April is indeed every mother’s nightmare: a nervy, tattooed and pierced punk who caused trouble all her life and who from early childhood to her now late teens did not manage to leave one single lovable memory in the mind of her longsuffering parents (Patricia Clarkson, Oliver Platt), her severe precocious sister (Alison Pill) and her dumb little brother (John Gallagher jr.). The one thing that could be said in her favour: April is the only one her demented grandmother (Alice Drummond) remembers, and she usually does not (want to?) recognize anybody anymore.

So why would April, epitome of the black sheep, have invited these spiteful relatives of hers to Thanksgiving Dinner in her crummy little place? And why would they have accepted this invitation to sure disaster from a daughter they feel not only long lost but certainly incapable of coming up with the mood and the goods for the most expectation-ridden of the family holidays?

Cutting continually from cool April desperately trying to prove the opposite – and desperately trying to hide her desperate endeavours from herself – to her sarcastic family desperately trying to ward off another disappointment by denigrating her all along the long car journey, the movie not only offers the answer to this puzzling question, but also insight into the many not less puzzling emotional binds and double binds that make up families. It draws us deeper and deeper into an assembly of characters bound by chance, blood, emotions and traditions that indeed works like a puzzle. All the missing pieces in one person are searched for – and sometimes found – in another. Not always recognizable at first sight, but there somewhere all the same. So not only does this lovely movie demonstrate convincingly how the pieces of April – the pieces of everybody else in this and other families – have to be shuffled and reshuffled to make a picture out of a character that is truer than its parts, it also shows with remarkable absence of sentimentality that love’s labour is not always lost.

Moreover, Peter Hedges’ smart script leads us on a collision course which develops considerable emotional tension as well as considerable comic relief. Will April be able to make the flabby slippery white carcass that goes as turkey edible? Will she find a neighbourly soul among the strange inhabitants of the building letting her use an oven that works since her own broke down? What about all the other frills needed for a traditional Thanksgiving? And on what shady mission with what shady brothers has her boyfriend gone missing? Will he be back in time? Will she be ready in time? And will the family nearing the dreaded meeting in the intimate huit clos of a car, bickering, fighting, stuffing themselves prophylactically on creamy doughnuts, finally find its way? Will the mother, fatally ill as we know by then, be given the last lovable memory she is wishing for to the grave?

“Pieces of April” combines sarcasm, sadness, humour, wit, warmth and a wonderful cast of characters to tell a story that we all know, in one variation or other, from personal experiences. It has been told many times before. Just not quite like this. And ‘just not quite like this’ always feels like a piece of luck.