Fitting in with one’s own family is tougher than it would seem at first glance. It would seem a no-brainer since conventional wisdom is that family-based love is unconditional. The reality of the matter is that just as with every other relationship one has, being part of a family takes work. Occasionally, someone is not willing to put in the effort and walks to the beat of a different drummer.
In Pieces of April, we are introduced to April, a vaguely twenty-something girl with all the visual clichés of rebellion: large obvious tattoos on her neck, reddish pink-dyed hair and clothes which look like they have been personalized after being bought at a thrift shop. She is living outside of the rest of her family with her boyfriend in a less-than tourist friendly portion of New York.
The rest of her family, whom we meet later, is the very picture of suburbia. Dad is a slightly overweight well-meaning sentimentalist while Mom we find out later is a breast cancer victim who has emotionally distanced herself from everyone. Brother Timmy is a photography aficionado and sister Beth seems solely concerned with not upsetting the status quo. We view their interpersonal interactions as they drive from their home to April’s apartment, to which they have been invited for Thanksgiving dinner.
The issue of Joy, the mother’s, breast cancer is central to the dynamic between all these people. Beth will use her mothers’ fragile state to try and derail the trip throughout the journey. The first thing she does when she gets in the car with her mother is badger her on an entire list of possible symptoms. “Are you nauseous? Are your hands clammy?” Any sign of weakness from Joy and Beth will see it as a reason to not go.
It’s obvious that in the wake of April’s rebellion, which has apparently been going on since she was an infant, Beth has taken the role of the good daughter. Throughout the journey Beth is putting the best spin on everything as an attempt to boost the failing spirits of her mother. The only times Beth turns negative is when the subject of April comes up. When Joy is remembering a happy memory of April as a child, Beth is quick to correct her that, no, that was her not April.
At one point, Joy is putting all her cards on the table. She is letting loose with all her feelings and she says to Beth “I love you even though you’re making the same mistakes I made and I wish you’d make some of your own”. Beth has chosen to play the part of the perfect child, as if she is hoping to give her mother a chance to reclaim her youth and health by seeing it as a rerun.
Timmy worships his mother in a different way. He has an almost worshipful view of her, referring to her as “Mommy” despite being a seventeen to eighteen year old. He shows her the bag of extra film he has brought for his camera in expectation of praise on the foresight he has shown. It’s unfortunate, then, that he has forgotten the camera.
Timmy’s photography hobby has been put to use in service of his mother-idolization. As Joy flips through a photo album later we see she is his primary subject. One even has Joy topless before surgery; a picture she commissioned so she would remember her now removed breasts. A later picture has her topless again, but this time post-surgery.
So we see that the two children still at home are there for a reason – their mother. Interestingly, the sense is that the role Timmy is played was chosen by him whereas the role Beth plays seems to have been one she feels it her duty to play.
Deciding what roles we play is the heart of the matter. Beneath Beth’s calm and loving exterior may beat the heart of someone anxious to strike out on her own. She feels it her duty, though, to take up the slack April let down when she chose rebellion.
The relationship between April and her mother is, despite being strained to an extreme, is actually the simplest among the three siblings. They simply don’t speak. We’re to understand that from earliest childhood April was on a mission to upset both her mother in particular as well as the family as a whole. Joy recounts a list of transgressions: a fire in the kitchen (which the father defends as accidental), trying to trim her brother’s bangs with a lighter and so on. Joy even accuses infant-April biting her nipples when Joy would attempt breast-feeding.
This original sin of April’s gives some indication that her rebellious path, instead of being one of her own choosing, was actually put before her by Joy. Any transgression by an infant has to be seen, by any logical person, as an accident. A baby has no sense of right and wrong or often what it is they’re doing. When their finger scratches the arm of the person holding them it’s not done out of malice or anger, but because the child has little to no sense of their own body much less someone else’s.
If Joy is seeing incidents of April’s misbehavior from infancy, she is neglecting to view the role her own emotions have played in April’s life choices. When being bad is how someone gets attention, that’s what he or she will stick with. April obviously got lots of attention for her behavior so she saw that as they role she was given to play. That’s how she filled the part of daughter. It’s a failing on both parts.
Both parties continue to see themselves as the wronged one in the relationship. It’s not until Joy is in a restaurant bathroom after fleeing April’s seedy street that she realizes the mistakes she made. She sees a mother and her ten-or-so year old daughter having an argument from which the mother storms away. Joy sees the mistakes that both people made in an instant and seems to understand those mistakes will forever influence that relationship. She then strikes out with Timmy to reconcile with April, if only for a Thanksgiving.