say your piece

157 13 NOVEMBER 2003
Flawed 'Pieces of April' a Quirky, Joyous Thanksgiving
By Jeremy Mathews

“Pieces of April”
United Artists
Written and directed by Peter Hedges
Produced by Gary Winick and Alexis Alexanian
Starring Katie Holmes, Patricia Clarkson, Oliver Platt, Derek Luke, John Gallagher Jr., Alison Pill, Alice Drummond and Sean Hayes
Rated PG-13
Opening at the Broadway
(out of four)

“Pieces of April” shows how a little heart and intelligence can take a film a long way. Katie Holmes’ performance as a plucky young woman and the ensemble appearing as her estranged family are an engaging presence in this Thanksgiving film about family. It makes it easy to forgive some of the film’s flaws and enjoy the story of different people trying to come together for a holiday that, today, is all about family.

April (Holmes) is far from her family’s ideal daughter. Switching from an ideal daughter to a rebellious youth, she moved away from her family’s suburban home to New York City. She apparently was in some trouble, but is now back on track, albeit with a punk look. April is hoping to set things right, especially with her difficult mother (Patricia Clarkson), who is dying of cancer.

The film cuts between April’s ill-fated turkey-baking attempts, her family’s car trip from their suburban home to April’s city apartment and an unnecessary subplot about April’s boyfriend’s (Derek Luke) attempts to get a nice suit for the dinner.

Oliver Platt plays April’s father Jim, who is eager to reunite his wife and daughter. He takes it all very seriously, knowing that his sick wife doesn’t have much time left. But she and her children don’t want to go. April’s goody-goody sister Beth (Alison Pill) feels threatened that the formerly model daughter April might regain favor. Timmy (John Gallagher Jr.) is a pothead and has been hooking his mom up to help relieve the pain.

Clarkson portrays the mother as she channels her illness into stubbornness and humor. At one point, she makes Jim stop the car, acting like she’s going to give a speech about when she dies, but instead turns it into a joke about April’s cooking.

The moment is very amusing, and it’s humor like this that keeps the film from wallowing in misery. But at the same time, it reflects the sad undertones of the characters.

Alice Drummond also provides comic relief as Grandma Dottie, who says the kinds of things senile people in movies say to create laughs and occasional moments of truth.

Writer/director Peter Hedges, who wrote the screenplay of last year’s “About a Boy” and adapted his own novel for “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?” (1993), makes an uneven but promising directorial debut. “Pieces of April” shows a lot of sly observations, but suffers from its low budget. At 81 minutes, the film seems as if Hedges couldn’t cut material that didn’t work and still keep the film at standard feature length.

The story line involving April’s boyfriend is a bit offensive and reduces to jerking around the audience for no reason, making us think that he isn’t a nice guy.

The film also suffers in look from its digital photography, but not as badly as films like “Tadpole,” by this film’s producer Gary Winick, who seems to believe that digital just magically looks fine for all aesthetics. It’s clear that efforts were made to light scenes and make them look good, which is more than can be said for some sloppy digital films (and some good ones use the look to their advantage), but the scant $200,000 budget shows limitations.

But with these limitations comes a promising writer. With more resources, Hedges’ next film could be great.

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