Words, Words, Words: Eventual Silence in PIECES OF APRIL

27 November 2011

Peter Hedges’ 2003 dramedy Pieces of April captures Thanksgiving Day in the lives of the Burns family.  Most of the family is traveling on a road trip from the suburbs to New York City for a Thanksgiving celebration with their estranged daughter, April (Katie Holmes).  Joy (Patricia Clarkson), the mother, is dying from breast cancer and is incredibly sick this particular day.  Jim (Oliver Platt), the father, works painstakingly to keep morale up on this road trip, as everyone’s negative attitude toward April and palpable fear of losing Joy to cancer consume the sarcophagus-like car.  In New York, April Burns and her boyfriend, Bobby (Derek Luke), prepare for her family’s arrival with seasoned blend of frustration, dread, and hope.  Jumping primarily between the family’s drive and April’s preparations, the film devotes itself to realism, exploring how dysfunctional families manage to function.

Pieces of April does not tell a new or original story; several holiday films revolve around dysfunctionally functioning families and their conflicts.  However, there are two things at work in Pieces of April that separate the film from others:  the camerawork and the use of language.  Filmed with a minimal budget on digital cameras, Pieces of April’s camerawork is relatable because it is unpolished with no special effects.  The camera is often hand-held, at times pulling viewers in during intensely emotional scenes with close-ups, and other times keeping its distance when the audience observes these characters omnisciently.

Yet, perhaps more significant than the aesthetic relevance, the use of language in Pieces of April is remarkable and pivotal to the film’s development.  Unlike its holiday contemporaries, the dialogue in Pieces of April is never what it ought to be, but always what is. Meaning, the characters don’t say predictable and prescribed lines; instead, the characters’ exchange words and blow hot air at each other the way families do in reality.  At times, these exchanges are funny, but most often they are difficult and painful.  Mostly stemming from Joy, language is the true antagonist in this film; Joy’s use of language is incredibly manipulative and cutting.  Always medicated and sometimes high, Joy is wickedly funny in one moment and simply wicked in the next.

During the drive to New York, Beth sings a song for the family.  Her voice is beautiful, and everyone seems to enjoy her performance, applauding and yelling for an encore when she’s done.  When she asks for requests Joy responds with, “That you stop.”  This is one of the countless hard-hitting insults Joy devastates her daughter with.  Evident from her reaction, Beth is shaken and distressed from her mother’s rejection.  In exchanges like this, which litter the film, it is clear to see how demoralizing Joy’s words are to this family; in this family, words are weapons and everyone is scarred.

A bit later, while still in the car, Joy directs her attention at Beth once more.  Joy tells Beth she does not know why she is so critical of her, continuing with, “…for years you’ve been the daughter of my dreams.  You have; you know you have.  Apart from your weight problems, we are practically the same person.  So why am I so hard on you?  Forget the fact that you’re making the same mistakes I made, and I wish you’d make your own…”  Once again, Joy’s words are like daggers that rip her loved ones apart.  Initially, it seemed like Joy is trying to apologize and compliment her daughter, but, without fail, she backhands her daughter with remarks about her weight and mistakes, thus destroying anything positive she could have accomplished with her words.

Also significant in this particular line, the audience is reminded Joy’s words are not trustworthy; how characters perceive and then express ideas is not a reliable marker for how things actually are in Pieces of April.  Joy states that Beth, aside from her weight, is just like Joy, and that is untrue.  If anything, Beth is like Jim.  The audience knows the child most like Joy is April, and that, likely, is the root of their friction.  Shortly after Joy says the aforementioned line she becomes upset, punches the windshield, and kicks the dashboard, which only reaffirms Joy and April are similar, as the audience has already seen April kick and hit when she is upset, such as the oven when she realizes it’s broken.  Thus, not only is language harmful in Pieces of April, it is also deceiving.

In the film’s subtle climax, Joy’s unyieldingly disturbing use of language is thrown back at her as she watches, though a mirror’s reflection, another mother and daughter in a bathroom at a diner.  As Joy stands in front of a mirror, she hears a mother in a stall with her young daughter say, “Well, I’m leaving.  You’re on your own.  We’ll see how you like that,” and the mother storms out of the bathroom, leaving her daughter behind.  In silence, Joy stares at the little girl, who looks remarkably like a young April.  Hedges cuts between close-ups of the little girl and close-ups of Joy; the little girl to the right of her frame, and Joy to the left of her own.  This effect gives the visual illusion that the two characters are closer in proximity than they actually are, when, figuratively speaking, Joy and the little girl are very close.  Eventually, the child runs out of the bathroom and Joy is left alone to take an honest, silent look at herself in the mirror.  Hedges decision to film this scene through a mirror is significant and appropriate.  Mirrors are an inconsistent symbol in Pieces of April, but, in this instance, the mirror signals to the viewers that Joy is finally looking at herself, not superficially, but sincerely; something she was not willing to see about herself is now unavoidably evident.

The unspoken conclusion she comes to in this moment is that she cannot be the mother in the mirror, and a considerable part of that comes from the language attached to the mother’s actions.  In the film’s conclusion, Joy, and eventually the entire family, get to April’s apartment. Laying down her weapons, Joy does not utter a word in the heartwarming last minutes of the film.  In the end, it seems the film’s clever use of language all leads up to the absence of it.  Distinguishing itself from other films that end with some verbal closure, usual in the form of an apology and declaration of promises for the future, Pieces of April, maintaining its allegiance to realism, allows the silence to speak volumes, which subtly reassures the audience there is hope for the Burns family.

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~ by Kate Bellmore on 27/11/2011.

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