Anyone whining about the lack of success of the South African film industry need only to look at a movie like Pieces of April to understand what we’re doing wrong. Written and directed by Peter Hedges, April is a small, personal film, well told. It stars Katie Holmes (post-Dawson and pre-Tom and therefore appealing) as an estranged daughter struggling to prepare a Thanksgiving meal for her dying mother and the rest of her dysfunctional family. A good portion takes place in the Lower East Side tenement block where April resides. It is a very human movie, full of sadness, good humour, wry insights and cracking one liners. The script is excellent and the performances are first rate; Patricia Clarkson was nominated for just about every award out there for her role as April’s dying mother. And there is Politics too; one of the most memorable scenes is when April’s black boyfriend (Derek Luke) goes out to what you’re set up to believe is a drug deal, only to realise that he’s actually gone to rent a suit to impress his girlfriend’s parents. See; Politics with a big P but without the trowel. Great script, great acting, small cast, few locations; South African film makers – never ever slow to wag a lecturely finger or bludgeon the audience with Issues – could learn a lot from this.
Anyway, I really only mention April because we caught Dan in Real Life at the cinema on Monday – a movie also co-written and directed by Hedges. Dan stars Steve Carrell and Juliette Binoche, and it has similar underlying themes to Hedges’ previous work; finding love, finding yourself, facing death and accepting the importance of family (however screwy, daft and inappropriate they may be.) Hedges also uses similar constructs including a central location where the family gathers – in this case a rambling timber-panelled home on Conanicut Island in the state of Rhode Island.
Like Louisiana, Rhode Island has a pretty aggressive and successful Film Incentive programme, and that’s why you’ll increasingly see RI locations appearing on screens before you. Dan was filmed in in the cities of Newport, East Greenwich, Jamestown, Westerly and Providence, with key scenes at Providence’s Seven Stars Bakery and the Point Judith Lighthouse in Narragansett.
However, the main focus is the family home (a monstrously ugly pile called “Riven Rock” located on West Bay View Drive in Jamestown) where the chaotic Burns clan gather en masse for bonding activitiesthat include family aerobics, family crossword puzzle races, family American football and family talent shows. I think we were supposed to learn from all this that the family unit, though it may be loopy, is warm and familiar and always supportive. Personally, if I’d been thrust into the midst of that zoo, I’d probably be considering doing a Jeremy Bamber.