A uniquely moving Thanksgiving story, “Pieces of April” is a film to savor and to be thankful for. It takes place over one difficult day on which young April, beautifully played by Katie Holmes, tries to repair her damaged relationship with her terminally ill mother Joy (2003’s indie superstar Patricia Clarkson) through the not-so-simple act of cooking a turkey. The results are quirky and funny and first, devastatingly moving by the end.
The day begins with 21-year-old punkette April and her boyfriend Bobby (Derek Luke, as impressive here as in “Antwone Fisher”) struggling with the basics of proper turkey handling; dealing with the stuffing is even worse. It’s a hopeless case for these two grungy Lower East Side kids, and when Bobby goes out to pick up a suit, April discovers that her oven doesn’t even work. Thus begins her quest up and down the stairs of her building to try to find a neighbor who will take her and her bird in.
Meanwhile, the dysfunctional family of all time – April’s – is loading into their car and hitting the road. Father Jim (Oliver Platt) is trying to keep a lid on his emotions as well as April’s siblings (Alison Pill and John Gallagher Jr.) The addition of senile mother-in-law Dottie (Alice Drummond) only makes his task more difficult. And while Joy is understandably prickly about everyone constantly asking her how she’s feeling, if she’s okay, if she needs anything, she is also given to bursts of mordant humor, mostly at the expense of everyone else in the car. The thing is, she really is funny. Clarkson whips the viewer’s emotions around with incredible ease and skill, never more so than when her damaged relationship with April comes up, as it often does. The fact is, Joy dreads seeing her daughter again and “experiencing the disaster that is her life,” though she knows this may be the last time.
And while April’s quest to finally get her turkey cooked is mostly a comic affair – marred somewhat by a broadly comic interlude with fruity, fastidious neighbor Wayne (Sean Hayes) – the pressure of trying to create a dinner that will live up to her mother’s expectations weighs heavy on her soul. As her family draws nearer to Manhattan, April’s brave facade starts to crack – and what seemed a fairly snarky comedy in the manner of “Tadpole” (another InDigEnt DV production, and not half the movie this one is) sneaks up on you and damn near breaks your heart. Moreover, there’s an acknowledgement of 9/11 that is so subtly played as to be all the more touching.
Aided by surprisingly artful photography given the usually lousy-looking format (cheers to DP Tami Reiker), and a score by Stephin Merritt – incorporating songs from his epic album 69 Love Songs – “Pieces of April” is the kind of heart wrenching family drama Hollywood has utterly given up on making anymore. Screenwriter-director Peter Hedges, who wrote “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape” from his own novel and “About a Boy” from Nick Hornby’s, makes good on his promise and then some.
One can only hope that “Pieces of April” will find the large, appreciative audience it deserves. This is everything an indie film could hope to be.