Beyond the “giving of thanks” and the historically dubious pilgrims-and-Indians origin story, the central American theme of Thanksgiving is breaking bread with family you might only see once a year in elaborately-prepared, tradition-fueled meals. These dinners can be emotionally fraught and contentious, unleashing relationship demons lying just under the surface and skeletons long packed in closets. We often don’t want to partake in these dinners, but feel compelled to, no matter how exhausting the prospect. These Thanksgiving reunions help mark the passage of time and might be the first or last time you ever see certain family members.
No movie I’ve ever seen has better manifested that quintessentially American tradition of a Thanksgiving dinner on the brink of utter catastrophe than Pieces of April.
(Incidentally, another of the central American themes of Thanksgiving is a hedonistic, almost orgiastic, expression of gluttony and boozing, which is hilariously satirized here in a sex scene where April moans the name of Thanksgiving side dishes. It’s a fantastic moment that doesn’t quite fit the rest of the movie, but I’m glad it exists.)
Katie Holmes plays April, an estranged sister and daughter who lives in a shabby New York apartment with her (Black) boyfriend. She is scrambling to make a nice dinner after her oven dies and she’s at the mercy of neighbors.
Meanwhile, April’s family is on a long road trip to her apartment. April’s mom, Joy (Patricia Clarkson) is sick with terminal breast cancer. Joy lives on the razor’s edge of “idgaf” and emotional breakdown. Clarkson is outstanding in the role, and received a deserved Oscar nom. Rounding out the family are the congenial dad (the only one still in touch with April) (Olver Platt), the resentful goodie-two-shoes sister (Allison Pill), the empathic baby brother (John Gallagher, Jr.), and the dementia-ridden grandmother (Alice Drummond). The characters are occasionally predictable tropes but ultimately fleshed out by excellent acting and some moments of clever writing.
The movie is a merciful 81 minutes, a perfect length to sustain tension around the possibly-doomed dinner and deliver a huge emotional payoff in its closing minutes. I love how it incorporates the use of photography by little brother Timmy to emphasize how important and memorable the movie’s final moments will be for everyone involved.
It’s not a masterpiece: the aesthetic is perhaps too unassuming and shabby, and the script leans too hard on both using and subverting Black stereotypes. But damn if I didn’t hit the credits with lots of well-earned warm fuzzies. No, not a masterpiece… but close. There aren’t many films I fell compelled to watch around Thanksgiving, but Pieces of April has become required Turkey Day viewing.