Who doesn’t have a story about a wacky family holiday event? Not many people, and that’s why Pieces of April, a classically indie movie about a young woman who invites her suburban family to her Lower East Side apartment for Thanksgiving, works so well. It’s all about the tenuous yet binding connections we have with our families, and how we continue to strive to understand our parents and siblings and hope for understanding from them – even though we often fail, even though our actions don’t necessarily communicate those feelings.
Pieces of April also is about finding new families in unexpected places. Katie Holmes, best known as the beautiful, whiny Joey on television’s Dawson’s Creek, plays April, the girl who is hosting her first Thanksgiving meal. Even though they’re clearly novices (she tries to mash uncooked potato cubes), April and her devoted boyfriend Bobby (the affable Derek Luke, who played Antwone Fisher), get off to a good start, maneuvering their way around the mysterious carcass.
But when Bobby goes out to run some errands and meet the mysterious Tyrone, April is on her own with the motley crew of neighbors in her grungy apartment building. She’s forced to call them into action when her oven goes on the fritz just as she’s popping the freshly stuffed bird inside. Knocking on doors, April first gets an assist from an African-American couple (the convivial Lillias White and Isiah Whitlock Jr.) who offer a few cooking tips and do cook the turkey for a little while, until they have to replace it with their own.
A righteous vegan can’t possibly help finish the job, nor do a couple of folks who simply close their doors on her. A neurotic fellow (Sean Hayes from Will & Grace) with a gorgeous new oven and a pampered cat doesn’t come through, either. But a helpful Chinese family with minimal English seems pleased to offer up their oven, and they get a perplexing American history lesson about the original Thanksgiving from April as a funny sideline.
Meanwhile, in a slightly less convincing, more obtuse, story line, the members of April’s immediate family are having their own odd day as they begin to make their drive to Manhattan. April’s mom (Patricia Clarkson) is quietly dying of cancer. Before they leave, April’s dad (Oliver Platt) finds mom in the car in the garage, with the engine not quite running. April’s Alzheimer’s-stricken grandmother (Alice Drummond) officially doesn’t recognize anybody, her snippy sister (Alison Pill) has no faith in April, and her sensitive brother (John Gallagher Jr.) tries to make sense of the unsettling circumstances by taking photographs.
At no point do any of them acknowledge their situations – nor do they wonder about how April is doing in her home and with the dinner. Writer Peter Hedges (What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?, About a Boy) makes his directorial debut here and admirably tries subtlety in drawing the family’s characters and echoing the reality that many families don’t communicate about even the most basic issues. However, Hedges goes a little too far. Though we understand why they might be in denial, it’s difficult to understand that they wouldn’t simply chat about April on their way to visit her. A lot is going on with April’s family, and we don’t quite get it.
Yet in the end, Hedges does pull off an interesting feat in Pieces of April. Despite the fact that some of the characters are lightly drawn and others border on ethnic stereotypes – the black couple whipping up soul food, the black boyfriend running through city streets on the way to meet some seemingly sinister associate – somehow, they magically come together organically by the time everyone sits down to eat together. We’re left feeling those quirky, confused, often unbearably loaded feelings we often get around our families, and the power of the most important one: unconditional love.
– Leslie Katz