In the American ideal, Thanksgiving is nothing if not a family holiday centered on a meal. Christmas has its gift-giving, Valentine’s its chocolates, and Independence Day its fireworks. It’s hard to imagine Thanksgiving, however, without a meal shared with family and friends.
In Peter Hedge’s Pieces of April (2003) Thanksgiving Dinner plays host to a story about family, juxtaposing imaginary holiday bliss with what is really more familiar: families aren’t always sources of joy. In the present case, it’s the runaway eldest daughter April (Katie Holmes) who has invited the rest of the family to her lower east side apartment that she shares with her boyfriend (Derek Luke).
As April’s brother, sister, mom, dad, and grandma travel from upstate, they forebode over the culinary disaster to come, a thinly veiled metaphor for the disaster that is their relationship with the dissident daughter. This carload of cynical family would play as altogether unsympathetic characters were it not for one poignant fact that cuts through their meanness: Mom (Patricia Clarkson) has cancer.
From the beginning, the uncertainty that plagues the family is evident, as Mom’s benign disappearance (she’s already waiting in the car) prompts a frantic search by the family. Later, Dad (Oliver Platt) pulls the car to the side of the road when he notices his wife leaned against the car window with her eyes closed. He touches her face and discovers she is only sleeping. It’s hard to stay mad at people living out one of life’s hardest realities.
In the city April and her affectionate boyfriend Bobby have no trouble garnering our sympathy. Her apprehension over her first family reunion in years is almost overshadowed by her pathetic attempts at stuffing a turkey (she’s a vegetarian) and mashing (raw) potatoes, lending credence to her family’s low expectations. But she is determined to do it herself—that is, until the oven breaks. Even April knows you can’t cook a turkey at room temperature. In desperation April is forced to knock on doors in her building.
After several rejections, April finds a family that lets her in. Husband and wife have Thanksgiving delectables spread out all over the kitchen, but they are willing to let April use the oven for a few hours while she finds another willing neighbor. They even lend her a few pointers on stuffing, side dishes, and fresh cranberry sauce (since “no one likes the canned stuff”).
Several gracious neighbors later, April is ready for the meal, but the apartment is still empty. Bobby has been waylaid in his quest to find a suit for the occasion by April’s jealous ex-boyfriend and his thugs. When the family arrives at the address April gave them, the ghetto look of the building gives them the excuse they need to keep on driving.
In the end it is Mother and son who ditch the family at their Thanksgiving restaurant and hitch a ride back to the city from a couple bikers. Hedges’s denouement is characteristically brief, and one of the most powerful I have experienced.
Knowing Mom is on the way, we find April and Bobby hosting their meal with the neighbors who have become family. When April answers a knock at the door, the film switches to a series of still photographs worth thousands of words of dialogue or stage notes. Mother and daughter embrace. Daughter serves mother meal. Rest of family arrives. Family poses for Christmas photo.
I appreciate Hedges’ (What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?, About a Boy, and most recently, Dan in Real Life) for his ability to elicit a feel-good response with stories that recognize the messiness of real life. In this snapshot of redemption and reconciliation, we are not really sure who is redeemed. The narrative resists easy classification. Who is the hero? Is it the mother who fights through cancer and painful memories to visit a lost daughter? Is it the father whose tender heart motivates the trip in the first place? Is it the daughter who vulnerably invites the distanced family into her substandard home?
Hedges knows that most of life’s stories—even stories of redemption—do not have clearly defined roles. Relationships are messy, life is nuanced, gray is real. For many readers, such subtleties may seem distant from the better known Story of Redemption. The Christian salvation narrative usually has clear lines and obvious sides. God is redeemer to a world in need of redemption. And we have a meal to celebrate it.
But what if our Christian meal, the Lord’s Supper, looked more like the messy meal played out in this film? What if Communion (and from that sacrament, the whole of Christian fellowship) were an opportunity to recognize the subtleties and nuances of human relationships? I don’t question that the roles are pretty clear in the God-human relationship; but what about that other interest St. Paul has in the Lord’s supper, namely that people learn to transcend typical human divisions for the sake of reconciliation, redemption, community (see the second half of 1 Cor. 11)?
The story of reconciliation depicted in the film moves me deeply. I have never been an estranged child, but I have experienced severed relationships. I’m human, after all. And as a neophyte pastor I have observed already how widespread is such brokenness. From my experience, it seems that there is nothing quite so profound, nothing quite so redeeming, as a repaired relationship.
Perhaps we put too much distance between healed human connection and Christian Salvation. Does the miracle of Jesus life, death, and resurrection—celebrated in that Christian meal—transform our human relationships as powerfully as it does our relationship to God? (By all means!) If so, Peter Hedges offers us a taste of salvation in this film.
Yes, reconciliation, like life, is messy. Lines are not always clearly drawn, and results are not always perfect. (We don’t know what April’s family was like after everyone went home again.) But for a moment, it’s heaven.
.................................... Pieces of April Written and directed by Peter Hedges Rated PG-13 DVD
Vaughn Nelson is the pastor of the Norco Seventh-day Adventist Church in Southern California and a Master of Divinity student at La Sierra University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/132