Mix and Mash: A Fresh Take on Thanksgiving
by Jennifer Na
Pieces of April (2003) follows the familiar narrative of a dysfunctional family at Thanksgiving but Director Peter Hedges is able to capture the essence of nostalgia and wistfulness through its refreshingly humble presentation. Filmed over the course of 16 days with a $100,000 budget, the film looks like a home movie by an aspiring arts school student, an effect that works to the film’s advantage to present an honest depiction of “white girl problems” which resonate through the characters’ interactions. The organic footage, seemingly unedited and unfinished, encapsulates the April and her family’s emotions as she endeavors to cook a Thanksgiving dinner for the first time in a dilapidated apartment complex: frustration, discovery, disappointment, and ultimately reconciliation.
Pieces of April follows the angst of the 21-year old cherry tattooed protagonist as she attempts to impress her dying mother, ironically named Joy, and estranged family with a traditional Thanksgiving dinner. Unfortunately her oven breaks and her boyfriend, Bobby, is missing so she asks her diverse and eccentric neighbors for help. The neighbors provide their unique culinary knowledge and teach April lessons about cooking, reconciliation, and living a meaningful life.
The home movie cinematography makes the film more genuine, and the simple production and modest evokes sincerity. Peter Hedges uses shaky hand-held camera work to emphasize April’s inexperience as a cook and develop the mise en scène. Rising starlet Katie Holmes as April wears alternative hand adornments, dyed pigtails, and a tattered tank top, additions that are similarly reflected in the ill fitting wardrobe for the other characters. The realistic depiction of the dirty and dingy apartment with miscellaneous trash, mysterious stains in the sink and empty refrigerator, including an unboxed pizza and canned cranberry sauce, reveals April’s immature lifestyle and reaffirms her family’s disdain for her. However as she gains advice from neighbors and help from her boyfriend, Bobby, she transforms her apartment to a welcoming home decorated with handwritten name cards, autumnal colored streamers, and turkey salt and pepper shakers she had as a child (Figure 4).
Diegetic and non-diegetic sound is incorporated into the cinematography to accentuate the atmospheres the characters interact in. In April’s failed attempt to mash raw potatoes the sounds include rough chopping, clanging utensils, and frantically slamming the potato masher against solid chunks of potatoes and the glass bowl (Figure 1). The scene immediately transitions with guitar strumming over Bobby’s whirring scooter engine as he traverses through New York City. Silence follows at Evette’s crowded kitchen with a medium shot of the stationary April while her neighbors cook an elaborate dinner with “sautéed red swiss chard with garlic” and other homemade dishes, a sharp contrast to April’s boxed stuffing and canned cranberry sauce. The camera unsteadily pans from close-ups of facial expressions through point-of-view shots to Eugene’s hands as he masterfully cooks. Despite the low quality imaging the food still looks vibrant and tasty, partially because of the nostalgia the homemade cooking evokes. April’s counter is cluttered with empty takeout containers and miscellaneous trash as well as a chunky mayonnaise-laden Waldorf salad (Figure 2). Eugene’s counter is also covered, but with fresh vegetables and other quality ingredients neatly partitioned, showing the experience and care he has as a cook despite his underappreciated role as an African-American male in low-income housing (Figure 3).
In the Chinese neighbor’s apartment diegetic, traditional Chinese music plays from the television that displays silk ribbon dancing as the extended family confusedly stares at April while she tries to explain Thanksgiving. The viewer is able to feel the same confusion because there are no English subtitles while Chinese is spoken; despite the language barrier April genuinely tries to be polite and communicate respectfully. The Chinese family molds a turkey leg out of carved dough after an unfriendly neighbor steals it and joins April’s family at the dinner table, which proves the ability of food to transcend barriers and cross-culturally connect.
The culminating dinner scene in the crowded apartment feels warm and familial despite the strangers gathering. Candid moments are shared as April hugs her disapproving sister, dishes are passed, and a family photo is taken with a self-timer. Camera shutters are used to transition between shots of the gathering, capturing happy moments for Joy to collect during this timely reconciliation. The Burns family finally experiences a mutual moment of enjoyment in this reprieve from their deteriorating relations. Although April’s cooking does not improve she is able to serve a gratifying meal and transform her isolated life into a community. Peter Hedges’ unconventional film encompasses the sentimentality that is all too often contrived, with food as a medium to convey individuality and connectivity in this fresh take on a two centuries-old holiday.
Hedges, Peter, director. Pieces of April. United Artists, 2003.
“Pieces of April (2003).” IMDb. IMDb.com, n.d. Web. 31 Mar. 2017.