Thanksgiving has to be the most forgotten holiday in film history. Rightly so, in my opinion. Still, while plenty of movies have Thanksgiving scenes in them, very few are actually about Thanksgiving. Television might actually have the best track record for Turkey Day. Roseanne used to do good thanksgiving episodes, especially the episode “Angstgiving”, but on every show, every year, it was essentially the same thing: kooky family fights, eventually finds its heart, but not in a sappy way, eats pie.
This is all of our families, and there is very little variation on the theme, so its mostly worthless to revisit it.
But Peter Hedges’ Pieces of April is as admirable an attempt to try to rend something good out of this terribly mediocre day that you are likely to find. Except for Planes, Trains and Automobiles, which is just a great movie period, Pieces of April stands as Thanksgiving’s lone pure digestible drama.
In it, Katie Holmes plays April, the black sheep of the excessively straight-laced Burns family. Her parents, Jim and Joy (Oliver Platt and Patricia Clarkson), have created something of a model of suburban life, with two goody-goody children in the sticks of New Jersey, except for the fact they’ve spawned this thing called April, who lies and cheats and takes drugs and sets fires (etc).
It’s put a great strain on the Burns family, who have mostly scrubbed April out of their daily lives. She remains in spirit and imprint, as the bad one, or as April puts it, the “first pancake”, the one which you are supposed to throw away, but how badly Joy and her other daughter, Beth (Alison Pill), would love it if she didn’t exist.
Because Joy is sick with cancer, they have decided to drive to New York to have Thanksgiving with April, because this may be the last opportunity to be together. It wouldn’t be Thanksgiving without some strife though, and the ride into the City, and April’s adventures in cooking reveal much of the dysfunction in the family: the mistrust, the fear, the angst. Joy must confront the fact that as much as April was a bad daughter, she was perhaps an equally bad mother. Much of it is deflected with humor, but the humor can’t gloss over the fact that Joy’s favorite memory of April turns out to actually be a memory of Beth.
April lies in deep contrast to her younger sister, who is perky and blonde, and has no tattoos or strange piercings. She’s never set anything on fire or shoplifted, and could have easily cooked a much better meal than April. She keeps herself in line, smiling through the offhanded insults from her mother so she can be the good daughter, if only because April has ruined being bad for her.
Allison Pill is the real underrated part of the film. She is note perfect in this role, hiding the bruises and awkwardness behind a cheery smile. It’s not hard to see the hurt in her smile, or the discomfort swirling around in her brain, but its done with a deft subtlety. Beth craves attention in the shadow of April so much, but only positive attention. Sure, that’s what pretty much everyone desires, but Beth takes it a step further, freaking out at anyone who sees her even doing something even slightly imperfect, like adjusting her retainer. It’s great that Alison Pill is getting recognition now, landing roles in Milk, Scott Pilgrim and even as Zelda Fitzgerald inMidnight in Paris.
But the blow of April’s shady, misfit, possibly criminal past is softened a bit too much by the adorable, un-aggressive Katie Holmes, who wanders through the film with her big eyes and her adult pigtails being impossible to hate. She is a little too vulnerable for someone who has supposedly ruined a family. (Maybe that’s a little bit of the point?) Isolated from that fact, Katie Holmes is wonderful in the role, though. It actually gave me hope at the time that she would break out of her Dawson’s Creek-Kevin Williamson shit phase and blossom into a great young actress.
That never happened, of course. She went on to marry Tom Cruise in lieu of having a real career, though they did produce the most unbearably adorable little person ever in the world together. And Batman, I guess. Mad Money? Not so much.
I do actually find myself revisiting this film every year. I played Planes, Trains and Automobilesout way too early in life, so this has to suffice, even though it’s not perfect. Like I said, it’s digestible, and Alison Pill and Oliver Platt, whom I would gladly watch painting his garage, are always worth revisits.
When you boils this down to its elements, though, what’s it about? It’s about a kooky family who fights, eventually finds its heart and even finds a redefinition of family. But not in a sappy way.