Pieces of April
directed by Peter Hedges
(United Artists, 2003)

There's nothing like the joy a Thanksgiving meal with family brings. Unless, of course, you're estranged from your mother, your younger sister is alternately jealous and dismissive of you, your family usually never visits you and your mother is dying of cancer.

Essentially, Thanksgiving, then, is one last chance for you all to "get it right."

Enter Peter Hedges with Pieces of April, a little film that brings all of the emotional upheaval -- good and bad -- to the holiday table. It's by turns gentle and savage, kind of like a family in the midst of turmoil, and it's not too much of a spoiler to note that the ending is a happy one, at least as much as it can be.

That's OK to know; it's the journey there that could move you to tears.

Katie Holmes is April, a young woman in her 20s who's finally digging herself out from abusive relationships, drugs and failure. Her mother has lost all patience with her and, we learn, never really had any patience or love for April to begin with. And her siblings are having enough problems on their own, dealing with adolescence and Mom's illness, to have much left over for April.

But April and her new boyfriend are hosting Thanksgiving in New York City, and her family has agreed to come. Only problem is, April discovers she has a broken oven and must go door to door in her rundown apartment building seeking help.

Of course, by fits and starts, she finds it. There are the black neighbors who are aghast, in a friendly way, at her canned cranberry sauce, and take it upon themselves to give her some emergency culinary skills. There's the recluse upstairs, who allows her to use his state-of-the-art stove; the vegan who can't imagine using her oven to cook something that used to have a face; the immigrant family who opens their kitchen and their home to April.

And there's her boyfriend, Bobby (Derek Luke), whose earnest attempts to help April and make a good impression on her family are heartbreaking.

It all could threaten to turn sitcom, but writer/director Hedges knows how to create comedy inflected with a bittersweet edge, how to drive a plot with suggestion rather than exposition. He's done it before with What's Eating Gilbert Grape? and About a Boy.

It's April's mother (Patricia Clarkson), though, who will take your breath away. Nothing she says is as it first seems, a seamless mixture of tremendous pain and bitterness burying what once upon a time had been a little patience and love.

She is harsh and deadpan and explosive when she needs to be, a worthy nominee for Best Supporting Actress at the Oscars.

- Rambles
written by Jen Kopf
published 4 December 2004

Buy it from Amazon.com.