Pieces of April
Directed by Peter Hedges. Starring Katie Holmes, Patricia Clarkson, Oliver Platt, Derek Luke, Sean Hayes, Alison Pill, John Gallagher Jr., Alice Drummond. (2003, PG-13, 81 min.)
REVIEWED By Kimberley Jones, Fri., Nov. 7, 2003
You’ve seen the holiday-from-hell film before – the squabbling siblings, the playful dementia of an older relative, unresolved mommy issues, and the inevitable foul-up with the turkey – and, frankly, you’ve seen it done better. (Jodie Foster’s criminally underrated Home for the Holidays springs to mind.) This directorial debut from Oscar-nominated screenwriter Peter Hedges (About a Boy, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?) is a well-intentioned, often terribly likable effort that nonetheless amounts to not much more than the rehashing of Thanksgivings past. April (Holmes), of the irksomely coy title, is the ne’er-do-well daughter in ripped stockings and fuschia-streaked braids, trying to prepare a proper Thanksgiving meal for her estranged family. They – father Jim (Platt); mother Joy (Clarkson), who is fighting a losing battle with cancer; prissy sister Beth (Pill); brother Timmy (Gallagher Jr.); and dotty Grandma Dottie (Drummond) – are driving in to New York from the ’burbs, and none too enthusiastically. Meanwhile, April finds her tenement apartment’s oven on the fritz and must go begging door-to-door for another oven, to the creepy guy with the dog fetish upstairs and the non-English-speaking sweet Asian family next door. The film is fraught with the kind of affably eccentric characters and setups that Hedges has built his career on, but with little of the subtlety or finesse he’s shown in the past; certain scenes – like an impromptu funeral for roadkill – strain so baldly for quirkiness that Hedges comes off like the overeager kid in the front row whose hand always shoots up first: You just want to tell him to ease off. The awkwardness may have something to do with the film’s confused tone, which can veer from zany to mean-spirited to swimming in bathos in a few short scenes. One scene in particular involves April’s family trying to recall a single happy memory of her, and coming up with nothing. It’s meant to score laughs, but I wonder if Hedges understands the kind of implications this has for his characters: What kind of monster is this April? Surely not the same girl played by sweet little doe-eyed Katie Holmes? Or are her family members the monsters, especially the mother who calls her daughter the "real cancer." Indeed, it’s difficult to reconcile the family’s version of April – the sex and drugs and pyromania she inflicted on them – and the film’s version. Hedges makes a good point, actually – that no version is the singular one, that these brawling members will never get one another right – but that vision is clumsily transferred to screen. Traces of these complex relationships are visible, and the altogether-admirable cast does what it can – which is a lot – but traces are all they can grasp at within the film’s too-speedy 80 minutes’ running time, so that ultimately Hedges’ film, like the turkey, comes out underdone.