“What a great movie!” a young man exclaimed as he and his companion crossed paths with my husband and I on the sidewalk outside the Fine Arts after seeing Pieces of April. “Low-key and low-budget,” he added, summing up the movie precisely.
“Thank goodness it had a happy ending!” I chimed in, still reeling from the film’s final scene, made all the more sweet because it was unexpected.
“It better have had a happy ending,” he said, “after everything it put us through!”
We all laughed. This film had indeed been a roller coaster of holiday-family anxiety — meaning it’s a movie that touches universal themes, such that it’s able to create an instant bond between perfect strangers.
Problem child April Burns (Katie Holmes, Abandon) has invited her estranged family to her tiny New York City apartment for Thanksgiving. She and her boyfriend, Bobby (Derek Luke, Antwone Fisher), rise early to start the seemingly endless steps in preparing dinner. Never having roasted a turkey before, April hilariously reminds us all of our first time at this Thanksgiving task. Since the recipe doesn’t indicate you’re supposed to cut the darn celery first, why wouldn’t you just stick all the stalks into the bird’s belly and let them stick out over the rim of the pot?
April’s mother (Patricia Clarkson) accepts her daughter’s invitation to dinner in an attempt to resolve the pair’s lifelong antagonism. Her dad (Oliver Platt, Don’t Say a Word), eager to do anything to bring the family together, supports the decision. And thus they set out on the long drive from suburbia, to the foreign-and-frightening territory of the city.
The trip is fraught with family tension: Beth (Alison Pill, Perfect Pie), the younger, jealous sister, keeps reminding everyone what a monster the distant April is, all the while pathetically trying to gain a smidgen of recognition from her mom. Meanwhile, son Timmy (first-timer John Gallagher Jr.) compulsively records everything on his camera.
The car gets even more cramped when Grandma Dottie (Alice Drummond, The Rising Place) joins the group, adding her dotty Alzheimer-insights to the mix. Cramped together in this manner, the family reveals its painful secrets like — dare I say it? — the layers of an onion being readied for stuffing.
Then it’s back to April’s apartment, where — nightmare of all hostess nightmares — her oven doesn’t work. Frantically, she knocks on all the doors of her apartment building, trying to find an available oven. In this way, she meets her neighbors — a melting pot of characters that could only be found in low-rent New York — for the first time. The subtle hilarity and tension rises with each slammed or opened door, including the funniest encounter, with therapy-is-my-life Wayne (Sean Hayes, TV’s Will & Grace).
Back in the stuffed car, each dysfunctional family moment on screen becomes all the more hilarious, because they’re literally hitting so close to home. And closer and closer the two settings race toward one another, as the turkey, blackened and missing a leg, eventually emerges from an oven.
April is a gem — a lovely directorial debut for director Peter Hedges, who also wrote the screenplay (Hedges’ only other claims to fame are the script for About A Boy, and the novel and script for What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?). There’s not one false or manipulative moment in the entire movie — an amazing feat, since April packs a gauntlet of emotions into every frame. Each actor is so captivating that the film’s complexity goes disguised, until you realize that you’re thinking about the movie for hours afterward: It’s charming one minute and poignant another, intelligent always, and thigh-slapping funny on enough occasions to warrant it being called a comedy.
Give yourself a double dose of pleasure in the coming days: See April, and then stay in the Fine Arts to catch The Station Agent, another movie starring Patricia Clarkson. It must be a miracle of the season that we get to see this wonderful actress in two terrific films without having to walk all over town.
– reviewed by Marci Miller