April (Katie Holmes) and Bobby (Derek Luke) are in love. You can tell because they wake up sweet, cuddled together in bed. You can also tell because he can toss her in the shower, clothes on, and she’s okay with that. He has a reason for such shenanigans: it’s Thanksgiving, and she’s invited her uptight, mostly angry suburban family, with whom she has never gotten along, to come to dinner. “Who’s coming today?” he asks brightly. “You know who’s coming,” she grumps, making as if she’s going back to sleep. Hence, the shower. Following this good fun, Bobby heads to the kitchen of their cramped Lower East Side apartment to make breakfast. And April sits in the window frame, hair damp, contemplating the disaster she expects her day to become. “I’m coming,” she says, feebly. “Here I come.”
As the title suggests, Pieces of April is about the ways that 21-year-old April is attempting to put herself together. This even as she feels fragmented, in an underexplained way, in relation to her family — mother Joy (Patricia Clarkson), father Jim (Oliver Platt), grandma Dottie (Alice Drummond), sister Beth (Alison Pill), and brother Timmy (John Gallagher, Jr.) load into their station wagon in order to visit the big city. The usual tensions are compounded by the facts that April can’t cook and Joy is dying of cancer, both given strangely equal weight in this comedy by novelist, screenwriter, and first time director Peter Hedges.
Such strangeness is the film’s strong suit, along with cinematographer Tami Reiker’s sharp use of the digital video camera. The representation and strong performances (by Clarkson, Holmes, and Luke, especially) performances is more effective as its more standard issue plot points and emotional appeals are delivered too bluntly, as if you need help following. The family fracture is clear enough, yet the film underlines it anyway, as when Bobby starts decorating the apartment with paper cut-out turkeys and other faux Mayflowerish items, April objects, “They don’t deserve decorations.” The boyfriend we all want to have, Bobby has the right answer: “Yeah, but you do.”
The day stretches longer still when April discovers that her oven is not working, which means she has to convince one of her neighbors to allow use of theirs. As a device to get her talking to a range of eccentric “types,” the broken oven couldn’t be more obvious. So, she must engage with the requisite gay neighbor Wayne (Sean Hayes), equipped with lapdog Bernadette; the wispy vegan girl who won’t even let her in the apartment bearing a turkey; and an Asian family who don’t speak English, but indulge her performance of the Pilgrims’ story, which leads to her own sudden understanding of Thanksgiving as “This one day, when they knew for certain that they couldn’t do it alone.”
The most remarkable turn-around involves Evette (Lillias White) and Eugene (Isiah Whitlock, Jr.). When April first knocks on their door, announcing that she has a “problem,” Evette literally laughs in her face: “The girl’s got problems! She’s white, she got her youth, her whole privileged life ahead of her. I am looking forward to hearing about her problems.” Within minutes, the three of them are in the couple’s apartment, Evette in tears in response to April’s sad story of family dysfunction. Of course they’ll help her with her turkey!
The film visualizes April’s pathetic pitch by crosscutting between the family en route and the turkey in preparation — will these events come together? As the family begins their drive, Beth, the “good daughter,” sits squarely in the back seat, as if willing reasons not to go. “Mom,” she says more than once, “All you need to say is I don’t feel up to it and we’ll all understand.” This is true, of course, but also not true, for no one understands anyone very well here. Even Joy and Jim, devoted to one another, are feeling the stress of her illness and the impending loss and fullness he will endure. Though she comes to a few movie-dying-person’s revelations during the ride to town: “Aside from your weight problem, we’re practically the same person. Why am I so hard on you?”
Longsuffering as he may be, Jim drives the vehicle, which means he has some say over what happens when — at least until Joy has to pull over to use the bathroom, puke up her treatments, and gaze at her pale face in a gas station’s grimy mirror. The journey is episodic, cut into April’s efforts to cook her turkey and Bobby’s own search for a proper suit in which to meet the in-laws (when he worries that an outfit looks like “pimp clothes,” his friend warns him: “You ever hear the phrase that says, ‘Beware the occasion that warrants a new suit?'”). At the same time, the family stops off for Krispy Kremes (the long shot of the car appears under a soundtrack thick with chewing sounds, as Joy articulates their moment of bliss: “So tell me, how can anyone not believe in God?”), as well as a brief roadkill funeral, where no one has anything to say, but the ritual speaks for what they’re all imagining.
Pieces of April makes these struggles with the scary specters of death and grief somewhat layered — occasionally facile (as with Joy’s relationship with her own mother, Dottie, who is partly antic, partly forgetful, partly wise, in the ways that comic-reliefy movie grandmothers tend to be) and occasionally moving (this due mainly to Clarkson, who brings resonance to most any role). The film is less successful in its considerations of race differences, plying and supposedly undermining stereotypes in order to end up circling around some sort of multiculti ideal, reduced to snapshots of all the family and the helpful neighbors in harmony at the dinner table.
The family comes to terms with April’s black boyfriend, who, by a series of extreme circumstances, first appears to them with bloody lip and torn jacket, falling into their windshield as if in assault. They scream and panic, like suburban white folks are wont to do when confronting the scary black man. The near disaster is resisted by Joy, at last, who has her own epiphany, the film’s use of stills to show the gathering allows enough distance to seem thoughtful.