It’s hard to believe the grungy goth chick with the tattoos and combat boots at the center of Pieces of April is actually former Dawson’s Creek cutie-pie Katie Holmes. Made over here as a very credible East Village hipster, Holmes delivers a fantastic performance that all but erases any lingering memories of her girl-next-door TV alter ego, Josephine “Joey” Potter.
The directorial debut of screenwriter Peter Hedges, who also penned What’s Eating Gilbert Grape and About a Boy, this low-budget Sundance favorite might easily have been a maudlin affair. Inspired by Hedges’ own experience watching his terminally ill mother prepare to die, the story concerns an awkward attempt at reconciliation between a wayward daughter and the conservative family she left behind many years ago.
That the film doesn’t come off as a treacly mess but instead an uplifting, if somewhat slight, cinematic elegy is largely due to the fine performances given by its two leading ladies. In addition to Holmes’ impressive turn as the well-meaning but flawed April, the film also stars Patricia Clarkson, who triumphs as April’s cantankerous mother, Joy, who, we learn early on, is dying of cancer.
The story unfolds on Thanksgiving Day. Against her better judgment, April has allowed her boyfriend Bobby (Derek Luke) to convince her to invite her estranged family to their tenement apartment for a traditional Thanksgiving dinner. April’s family looks forward to the occasion even less than she does; nevertheless, they pile into their station wagon and head into New York from their suburban haven.
The action is divided between April’s disaster-laden efforts to prepare the meal and the family’s hyper-tense car trip. For April, who can barely open a can of cranberry sauce without consulting a manual, cooking the dinner seems an almost insurmountable task even before she finds that her oven doesn’t work. The discovery sends her scrambling through the building, knocking on strangers’ doors in the hopes that her neighbors will take pity on her.
A few do, including Sean Hayes, who further demonstrates that, unlike Holmes, not all TV stars can parlay enormous small-screen fame into a successful film career. It’s clear here Hayes will forever be inexorably linked to his Will & Grace character; his over-the-top performance as a creepy fey neighbor with a coveted convection oven comes across as Jack McFarland doing Jerry Lewis doing Anthony Perkins
Meanwhile, April’s family bickers steadily as they make their way into the city. Her overachieving kid sister (Alison Pill, from “Life With Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows) tries vainly to call the whole thing off, but her overwrought father (Oliver Platt) remains determined to create one happy familial memory that includes his errant eldest daughter. A sensitive brother (John Gallagher, Jr.) and a senile grandmother (Alice Drummond) round out the family, but do little more than fill up the back seat, presumably for aesthetic reasons.
The numerous pit stops they make – to gobble down Krispy Kreme donuts, to conduct a funeral for a dead squirrel, to argue, to vomit (and vomit, and vomit) – feel a bit contrived after awhile.
Hastily shot, the film suffers in other ways. The grainy DV cinematography varies from merely serviceable to barely tolerable, and Hedges, like many novice directors, over-utilizes jump cuts and dizzying hand-held camerawork in an apparent effort to add visual punch.
But these are minor quibbles easily overshadowed by the genuinely moving story and, to a greater degree, by Clarkson’s manic performance. With one look, Clarkson conveys the pain, fear, regret, and resignation festering just beneath her character’s skin. It’s a haunting and wonderful performance, befitting a movie that, in its own quiet way, says so much about growing up, giving in, and letting go.
(Appeared in Gay City News)