Thanksgiving is supposed to be a harmonious holiday where families gather around to share their love for one another and thanks for being together. As depicted in film, it is a stressful holiday that refuses to go off without a hitch. Look no further than 1987's "Planes, Trains, and Automobiles," 1995's "Home for the Holidays," and 1997's "The Ice Storm" for no better proof of this notion, and add "Pieces of April" to the list. Written and directed by Peter Hedges (in his directing debut; his writing credits include 1993's brilliant "What's Eating Gilbert Grape"), whom we suspect has drawn from memories of he and his family's own life, the film plays like a sitcom that just so happens to feature characters infinitely more real and complex than the genre usually permits.
April (Katie Holmes) is the black sheep of the Burns family. As a child, she was the troublemaker of her siblings, always getting into trouble and causing her parents, Joy (Patricia Clarkson) and Jim (Oliver Platt), grief. Now in her early 20's and long-since estranged from her family, April has taken it upon herself to invite them to her Manhattan apartment for Thanksgiving. She recognizes that this might turn into a train-wreck (she has never really gotten along with them), but her mother is sick with cancer and she hopes that somehow their relationship can be salvaged before it's too late. With no real cooking skills and an oven that has decided to break at the most inopportune time, April spends the day trying to find another apartment to cook the turkey at. Meanwhile, Joy, Jim, brother Timmy (John Gallagher Jr.), sister Beth (Alison Pill), and Grandma Dottie (Alice Drummond) have loaded into the car to make the trek across New York to April's, awaiting disaster.
Shot with a digital camera on a minuscule budget of $300,000, "Pieces of April" has an immediacy to its cinematography (by Tami Reiker) and performances that bring a reality to what could have easily turned into one big cliche, too cute by a half. The way that April's meal preparation takes one bad turn after the next is inevitable; where this story thread gains momentum is in the varied kindness she finds from perfect strangers living in her apartment building. One couple, Evette (Lillias White) and Eugene (Isiah Whitlock Jr.), gladly allow her to use their oven for part of the cooking time, but chastise her when they discover most of her food is coming from cans. Later, an Asian family lets April into their home, despite a language barrier.
Katie Holmes (2003's "Phone Booth
") has been a vivacious talent for several years; she is a joy to watch in the way she can make even the most trite scenes feel fresh and alive based solely on the reality she brings to her roles. Holmes is alternately funny and touching as April, a girl resentful of the problems she has with her mother and fearful that she is in way over her head. April seems positively sane and well-behaved, however, in comparison to her family, who bicker incessantly even as they are wildly overprotective of each other. Joy, who is dying of cancer, gives her children a particularly rough time, which leads the viewer to question how much of her problems with April were really April's fault. Patricia Clarkson (2003's "The Station Agent
") gives another one of her reliably strong performances as Joy, a woman filled with depth, regret, and a straightforward attitude egged on by her knowledge that her time on earth is dwindling. Clarkson garners some of the film's biggest laughs with her strict matter-of-factness, as well as some of the more emotionally rewarding moments.
Set over a period of less than twelve hours, "Pieces of April" is smart and involving in its dual depiction of April making the dinner and her family driving to get there. Regrettably, it runs into a brick wall every time its third subplot appears, involving April's nice-guy black boyfriend, Bobby (Derek Luke), on a journey through the city for something that remains unclear until the third act. The mystery set up of where Bobby is going is distracting and, when it is exposed, frustratingly pointless. The film's other downfall is its anticlimactic ending; its rushed nature and technical choices are all the more muddled because the rest of the movie has led up to this moment, and it is reduced to a wordless montage.
A major hit at the 2003 Sundance Film Festival, it is easy to see why audiences were taken with "Pieces of April." It is a likable film, no doubt abut it, and in its depiction of a dysfunctional family it rings with resounding truth. Still, the inexperience of director Peter Hedges shines through at several points. There may be some rough editing choices and a slight nature to its proceedings, but he understands and cares for his characters in a way that bigger-budgeted, more mainstream features rarely do. "Pieces of April" gets the machinations of April and Joy so right, and Katie Holmes and Patricia Clarkson are so good at bringing these two characters to life, that the picture's flaws register little more than a passing blip on the radar. "Pieces of April" depicts a Thanksgiving worthy of remembrance, if not necessarily one for the photo album.