Pieces of April
review by Elias Savada, 31 October 2003

This year's spilled turkey tribute is secured by Peter Hedge's Pieces of April, wherein he provides an abundance of holiday stuffing/suffering in dispelling the dysfunctional family spirit around the quintessential American holiday of Thanksgiving. Although I admire the meal he serves up, I left just over half full, perhaps feeling like I've been at this table before; plenty of dressing, but not enough bread and butter in the back story, for getting behind the characters' current state of conflict. Still, you won't leave feeling cheated out of a good, decent serving of slices of offbeat comedy topped with distinct personalities.

The fourth Thursday in November has been the subject of similar cinematic misfortune and family mayhem for a flock of black sheep, among them Claudia Larson (Holly Hunter) in Home for the Holidays (1995), a diverse cultural blend of families in What's Cooking? (2000), and The Myth of Fingerprints (1997), Bart Freundlich's darkly comic meditation on the subject. In this year's independent, washed-out digital-video edition we have Katie Holmes as the titular April Burns, the cast off offspring of Jim and Joy (Oliver Platt and Patricia Clarkson). Holmes, which my younger readers remember as Joey on Dawson's Creek, but who the rest of us older folk recall from her capable supporting film roles in a dozen or so films, including her debut in The Ice Storm and the more recent Wonder Boys (two films having thematic similarities to her new effort) is the film's centerpiece. Clarkson, fresh from her marvelous contribution in The Station Agent, as a grieving mother who finds spiritual support in the hands of a dwarf who likes trains and a chatty hot dog vendor, again provides a strong, understated performance that confirms why so many critics are calling her the queen of the indies. Just knowing she's in a film is enough for me to want to watch it.

The twist this November holiday go round is that the family is reluctantly ripping itself away from its cushiony, middle-class suburban roots, piling in their station wagon, and trudging en masse to reunite with their out-of-touch and ill-equipped-for-the-feast daughter. Mom, diagnosed with a generally unspoken of, but obviously terminal case of cancer; dad a.k.a. referee of the forced reconciliation; April's "perfect" sister Beth (Alison Pill); youngest sibling Timmy (John Gallagher, Jr.), constantly photographing the family's emotionally awkward outbursts; and ditsy-bordering-on-senile grandmother (Alice Drummond), inch toward Manhattan's Lower East Side and assume the worst will greet them at the tenement door. On more than one occasion, there are self-inflicted attempts to turn the car around and crawl back home, like a dog with its tail between its legs. At one point, they break they bury, and eulogize, an animal they met in the middle of the road. Apparently the Burnses stock up on enough Krispy Kreme donuts to struggle onward with their frustrated road trip.

Meanwhile, April's propping up her holiday trimmings on a wobbly table in a run-down apartment on the wrong side of town. She's coping with disastrous holiday preparations, particularly a big, naked bird in search of a working, and available, oven—she's no competition for Martha Stewart. She's anxious, too, wondering how a girl with black polished nails, tattooed cherries on her neck, a questionable socioeconomic condition, and a black boyfriend, Bobby (Antwone Fisher's Derek Luke), who has his own subplot to deal with, is going to win over a family that, from all appearances, has no particular desire to want her back.

The feature thus unfolds from two sides on a singular long day, cross-cutting to-and-fro as the meal, its disastrous preparation, and its participants (family and April's often peculiar and generally helpful neighbors) draw close. Ultimately, the push me–pull me attempts from the somewhat eccentric sides—particularly mother, on the edge of frailty, and April, still bitter—to come to an affecting compromise exhibits both uneasy comic moments and emotionally poignant scenes.

The supporting cast handles its characters fine, with Will & Grace's Sean Hayes plays a dementedly prim upstairs tenant who briefly holds April's slow-cooking turkey hostage after his feelings are hurt.

The directorial debut of Hedges, writer of the novel and screenplay What's Eating Gilbert Grape? and the Oscar-nominated script About a Boy, is an earnest, low-budget effort, seasoned by Hedges' own family tragedy, about reconnecting with parents and children broken apart by time and an urgent, perhaps doomed, effort to mend wounds that have festered over a lifetime. Maybe the result is just another quirky film, cute and warm and familiar, but it's a decent enough carving of actual family strife to know you're getting the right stuffing on the table.

Written and 
Directed by:

Peter Hedges

Katie Holmes
Patricia Clarkson
Derek Luke
Sean Hayes
Oliver Platt
Alison Pill
John Gallagher, Jr.
Alice Drummond

PG-13 - Parents
Strongly Cuationed.
Some material may
be inappropriate for
children under 13.







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