Neil Young’s Film Lounge – Pieces of April

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

PIECES OF APRIL

6/10

USA 2003 : Peter HEDGES : 81 mins

In her early twenties, rebellious April Burns (Katie Holmes) has tired of feuding with her relatives and is happily living in a tiny Manhattan flat with boyfriend Bobby (Derek Luke). But when her mother Joy’s (Patricia Clarkson) cancer reaches a terminal stage, it’s decided that the family should eat Thanksgiving dinner together – at April’s place. While April struggles with the turkey – and an unhelpful gas oven – her family drive down from upstate New York: Joy (Patricia Clarkson), April’s father Jim (Oliver Platt) brattish younger siblings Beth (Alison Pill) and Timmy (John Gallagher, Jr.) and Alzheimer’s-suffering grandmother (Alice Drummond). While Bobby scoures the city for a decent suit, April seeks assistance from the apartment-block neighbours she has seldom spoken to before. Problems ensue…

‘Thanksgiving trauma’ is a favourite theme of American independent film-makers, although the genre’s most original recent entry was made (in California) by a couple of Frenchmen: Jean-Baptiste Andrea and Fabrice Canepa’s horror B-movie Dead End featured the most believably vicious of in-car family frictions. The Burns family does grate on each others’ nerves in Pieces of April, but with less gory results than experienced by the hapless Dead Enders. Geographically and thematically, Hedges covers territory much closer to that mapped by Gregory Mottola in his 1996 indie-comedy The Daytrippers.

In that movie, thirtyish housewife Hope Davis travelled in a crowded car with her family from upstate New York to Manhattan, after stumbling across evidence of husband Stanley Tucci’s infidelity. Despite much hype hailing Mottola as the Next Big Thing, he was barely heard of again: not such a great loss, as The Daytrippers was really a bumpily uneven ride, with a particularly flat climax. Dead End is an even more drastic example of the wheels falling off the wagon late on, the unforgiveably weak finale largely undoing the bracing darkness of the early and middle stretches.

Pieces of April plots a different trajectory: after an unpromising deja-vu opening, and some so-so middle sections (Bobby’s “adventures”, April’s entanglements with oddball neighbours), Hedges builds to a surprisingly moving resolution in which Joy and April wordlessly settle their long-standing differences and the real meaning of Thanksgiving is asserted: both developments carried off without an excess of mawkis sentimentality.

If Pieces of April is ultimately more satisfying than either The Daytrippers or Dead End, perhaps that’s due to Hedges’ greater wealth of experience. Though this is his debut as a director, he’s already in his early forties and wrote What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? (1993, based on his own novel), A Map of the World (1999) and About A Boy (2002), which earned Hedges an Oscar nomination. Pieces of April also attracted Academy attention, with a ‘surprise’ Best Supporting Actress nod for Patricia Clarkson.

Observers weren’t surprised that Clarkson was nominated per se – many thought she should already have been recognised for the likes of High Art (1998) and Far From Heaven. The general consensus was that, if Clarkson was going to be nominated for a 2003 movie, it would be for The Station Agent, as Pieces of April might be ‘too underground’ for Academy tastes. Shot (by cinematographer Tami Reiker) on lo-fi DV and thus recognisably from the same InDigEnt production stable responsible for Tadpole, Pieces of April does have a rough, hand-held look. But – as with the central characters of Joy and April – the film’s gritty exterior is really a thin shell yielding a relatively soft, conventional, amiable centre, with a typically polished (if bafflingly under-used) soundtrack of songs by Stephin ‘Magnetic Fields’ Merritt.

But what did happen to Greg Mottola? Since The Daytrippers his sole behind-the-camera credits are for small-screen work, but he has appeared in a couple of prominent films. Woody Allen, no less, cast him as a hotshot young director in 1998’s Celebrity. Four years later, Allen called on him again to act in Hollywood Ending – this time Mottola was relegated to playing ‘Assistant Director.’ If deliberate, this must count as the most darkly witty thing Allen has done in years: more amusing, in fact, than anything in The Daytrippers – or Pieces of April, come to that.

8th July, 2004
(seen 29th June : UCI MetroCentre, Gateshead : public show)

by Neil Young