On the road again

“Pieces of April” explores the racial politics of eating turkey.

by Tom Horgen

Here is a film that contains messy, digital video camerawork, nasty characters and a political agenda that’s teetering between triumph and collapse. Sounds bad, right? Quite the contrary. The fact that “Pieces of April” is whole-heartedly barreling down an incendiary route – instead of subscribing to Hollywood’s beautification process – makes it damn refreshing. Sort of like ingesting a full dose of “Dancer in the Dark” after a Steven Spielberg / Ron Howard hug-me marathon.

Hell, the opening minutes of the film have us watching Katie Holmes stuff a Thanksgiving turkey. And this isn’t just any old rubber turkey from a studio prop department. No, this is a slippery-wet, pasty-pink, straight-from-aisle-six hunk of Thanksgiving love. Super gross.

By no means is “Pieces of April,” with its unflattering digital photography, multiracial cast and yammering dialogue more realistic than any other indie film rolling out of Sundance. No narrative film should be called “realistic” – some films might seem life-like, but their characters still inhabit a world dictated by such things as cuts and fades. But we can say this about “Pieces of April”: It is a film that speaks in strong opposition to the Hollywood aesthetic.

The film contains no gorgeous 35mm cinematography to beautify the pain. Instead, the characters’ angst is intensified with schlock digital video. Except for a few strums here and there, music isn’t employed to guide our emotions. And most importantly, the character interactions aren’t smooth at all. The characters speak awkwardly, they fight, they hate. We watch a family ride five-deep in a station wagon as they endure a grueling road trip. And the film captures that madness, a madness many of us have probably endured quite well.

First-time director Peter Hedges, the screenwriter of “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape” and “About a Boy,” has a story to tell and he’s going to do it without Hollywood’s proven aesthetic tugging at his coattails. A big-city girl named April (Holmes) wants to reconcile with her estranged family over a Thanksgiving dinner she has promised to prepare. The film focuses on the drive April’s family must make to get to her apartment in New York. At the same time, it parallels April’s struggle: Her oven is busted and none of her neighbors are willing to help her out.

And it’s through this chaotic quest that we meet the apartment’s ethnically diverse tenants. It’s in this sort of microcosm where the meat of the movie is present. It’s also where the film’s politics have been criticized the most. The Village Voice went so far as to say that two of the tenants, a black couple who helps Holmes, are “our heroine’s very own Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben.”

There is no doubt Hedges, a 41-year-old white guy from Des Moines, Iowa, is tip-toeing on egg shells with his representation of Asians and blacks in the film. And the director freely admits that he was walking a tight rope when he initially developed these characters.

“Every moment there was peril – the wrong actor cast, a shortcut taken through any scene – and I would be reducing the people to cliches or caricatures,” Hedges said in an interview with the Daily. “I put a lot of thought into it and hopefully didn’t step on any of the landmines. I don’t like movies that make fun of people. I don’t mind when characters make fun of other characters – people make fun of people all the time – but I don’t want to make a movie where the director is having fun at the expense of his characters.”

Even if “Pieces of April” does contain some close shaves – the overly kind, non-English-speaking Asian family; the African decor of the black couple’s apartment – Hedges’ intentions are good and deserve the benefit of the doubt.

In fact, besides simply offering some much-needed minority representation, Hedges is serving up some semiprovocative commentary.

Early in the film, April’s boyfriend, who is black and will also be meeting her parents for the first time, leaves their apartment to pick “something” up. Next, we see him waiting anxiously at a pay phone on some grimy street corner. The dominant cinema has trained U.S. audiences with years of distorted black images to anticipate some sort of illegal activity. But it turns out the boyfriend is just waiting to pick up a suit so he can impress April’s parents.

“It’s one of those moments, one of those parts of the story that says a lot about the audience,” Hedges said. “It also says a lot about what we’ve come to expect.”

The film’s jarring, anti-Hollywood aesthetic allows us to think more incisively about its political agenda, especially in regards to its racial politics. The jittery camerawork, lack of music and even the sloppy turkey free us from the vacuum that Hollywood often tries to envelope us in: that viewer space where we’re not supposed to think, just consume stereotypes and bankrupt ideology.

This film is uncomfortable, even annoying at times. But its attempt to liberate us from our complacency is something to celebrate.

And there’s something to be said for a white director who is, for the most part, successful when playing around with racial stereotypes in hopes of destroying them.

“Some people say ‘You write what you know,’ and I say, ‘Write what you want to know. Write what you want to learn,’ ” Hedges said.