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With: Katie Holmes, Patricia Clarkson, Oliver Platt, Derek Luke, Sean Hayes, Alison Pill
Written by: Peter Hedges
Directed by: Peter Hedges
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for language, sensuality, drug content and images of nudity
Running Time: 80
Date: 01/19/2003

Pieces of April (2003)

3 Stars (out of 4)

The Right Stuffing

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Anyone who makes a dysfunctional Thanksgiving movie must get in the ring with Jodie Foster's underrated Home for the Holidays (1995) -- still the champion if for no other reason than for the shot of Holly Hunter bundled up in her mother's god-awful coat, sitting in the backseat stuck in holiday traffic and exchanging glances with a stranger one car over, who is undoubtedly living out the same kind of hell.

But somehow as if by some holiday miracle, screenwriter Peter Hedges (About a Boy) -- who makes his directorial debut with the new film Pieces of April -- pulls it off.

Every family has its black sheep, but the Burns family is a real piece of work. The home base barely functions at all: mom (Patricia Clarkson) suffers from terminal cancer and has reached a kind of grueling honesty-is-best stage. Dad (Oliver Platt) just tries to hold it all together as his prim-n-proper daughter Beth (Alison Pill) vies for the coveted white sheep family slot and son Timmy (John Gallagher Jr.) photographs every awkward moment.

And what screwed-up family would be complete without a dotty old grandmother (Alice Drummond) who can't remember anyone and who must be dutifully wheeled out for holiday functions?

But to these people, April (Katie Holmes) is the real troublemaker. April had the nerve to move off to New York City and shack up with an African-American boyfriend, Bobby (Derek Luke).

Hedges divides the movie into thirds, cross-cutting between different locations. We see the Burns family driving from Pennsylvania toward the City for Thanksgiving dinner in April's cramped apartment, while April vainly tries to cook a turkey with a broken oven, and Bobby rides off on his scooter for some clandestine meeting somewhere.

Hedges plays on our expectations by allowing us to think that Bobby is dealing drugs, when in reality, he's searching for a nice suit to wear to dinner to impress the folks.

Each of these sequences gets equal time and care, imbued with Hedges' casual sense of detail. The Burns family orders an extra box of Krispy Kremes, anticipating the horrible dinner in store for them, while April meets many of her neighbors for the first time in her search for an oven. Only Sean Hayes ("Will & Grace") as an uptight customer named Wayne seems a bit over-the-top and out-of-place.

April and Bobby's apartment even looks like a real twenty-something living quarters rather than a Hollywood set. By shooting in digital video, Hedges highlights the grungy reality of the situation as well as the cozy intimacy.

As a writer, Hedges beautifully succeeds in establishing his characters both with and without dialogue. April spends great chunks of the movie all by herself, and with this performance Holmes flawlessly keeps her in focus. At the same time, Clarkson's near-constant patter makes her all the more poignant. Her fear of dying becomes all the more palpable. (And yet, Hedges stays away from any disease-of-the-week movie moments.)

It's a blessing that Hedges -- who previously wrote both the novel and the screenplay for What's Eating Gilbert Grape? -- knows when to shut up. The film's final powerful moments are played out with no dialogue at all, and it's absolutely perfect.

I'm thankful that Pieces of April is one fall movie that is not a turkey and does not rely too heavily on stuffing.

DVD Details: MGM/UA's DVD comes with an audio commentary by writer/director Peter Hedges, a featurette, All the Pieces Together and a trailer. The source digital video somehow looks muddy on television, and surround sound is too much overkill for such a low budget pic; the most important part, the dialogue, comes out too soft.

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