“Pieces of April” is a little movie — a tiny one, really. It’s about a Thanksgiving dinner, the prodigal daughter who isn’t very enthusiastic about cooking it, and the family that’s even less fired-up about traveling to visit her and eat it. But this slowly unfolding domestic disaster, set in New York’s Greenwich Village, is funny and bittersweet and as emotionally satisfying as any holiday movie. The writer of “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?” makes his writer-director debut a charmer of mild surprises, heartfelt laughs and genuine humanity.
Katie Holmes stars as April, the problem child who left home to start anew as a struggling actress in New York city. “I’m the first pancake,” she says — the first pancake, the one you throw out.
That’s what her mother did with her. April’s mom, given a vivid, irked and lived-in feel by the peerless Patricia Clarkson (“Far From Heaven,” “She Said,” “The Station Agent”), no longer speaks to her daughter. Top Stories Overnight rains in Central Florida continue for most of the day Wednesday to line up warmer and mostly sunny Thanksgiving.
April’s meal preps go awry — her oven dies and she must introduce herself to one strange neighbor after another to find another stove she can use for the turkey.
She meets the cliched cross-section of New York life — the understanding and culinarily savvy black couple (Lillias White and Isiah Whitlock Jr.), the prissy snob with the state-of-the-art stove (Sean Hayes).
And her family’s functioning dysfunction is stuffed into a station wagon, rattling its way toward the confrontation to come. Mom’s hostility blasts through at every turn. She gorges on Krispy Kremes, a comment on what she thinks of her oldest daughter’s domestic skills. “
We’re going to have a very nice time,” April’s embattled dad keeps telling her mother and her siblings. As played by Oliver Platt, not even Dad seems to believe that. But he’s determined to make the effort.
And April’s beau, played by Derek Luke, seems more worried about the meal and making an impression on her parents by decorating the apartment than she is.
“They don’t deserve decorations,” she snaps. “You don’t really believe that,” he fires back.
The men in Peter Hedges’ scripts are often the peace-makers. Think of “Gilbert Grape,” “Dan in Real Life” or Hedges’ adaptation of “About a Boy.” Here, April’s ill-tempered struggles and mom’s mood swings play out like an impending Western showdown, “High Noon” with canned cranberry sauce.
“Pieces of April” — which takes its title from a Three Dog Night song, has all these cliched holiday situations — a disastrous meal in the making, cranky relatives, assorted stock type neighbors. And yet somehow Hedges makes it work. The cliches are turned on their ear. We buy into the tale and allow ourselves to be surprised when things don’t play out the standard Hollywood way.
Thank the actors for that. Holmes is a revelation, firmly establishing a surly yet likable and complex big-screen presence after too many years on Dawson’s Creek. Clarkson makes her mother compelling, hateful, understandable and even lovable. And Platt’s turn as a long-suffering spouse with the weight of the family on his shoulders is nearly pitch-perfect.
“Pieces of April” won’t change the world or conquer the box office. But its story of grudging reconciliation will touch you, maybe even break your heart, if you let it. And with the holidays coming, a little well-placed sentiment seems just what the movie doctor ordered.
Rating: PG-13, profanity
Cast: Katie Holmes, Patricia Clarkson, Derek Luke, Lillias White, Isaiah Whitlock Jr., Sean Hayes and Oliver Platt.
Credits: Scripted and directed by Peter Hedges.
Running time: 1:20