A moving and occasionally funny little tale that somehow makes its inexpensive, digital camera (we're not talking Lucas-style digital camera, by what appears to be more Best Buy style) roots work in its favor, "Pieces of April" is a heartfelt family drama starring Katie Holmes that was snatched up in a Sundance bidding war.
The film stars Katie Holmes as April, the oldest daughter of a family who has greatly dismayed said family by getting tattoos, piercings and moving out of the family house to an apartment on NYC's lower East side. It's Thanksgiving, and two stories in the film eventually pull together. First off, April is attempting to make a dinner for the soon-to-arrive family, but things aren't going terribly well - she can barely cook, and pretty much everything about her run-down apartment isn't cooperating well. She turns to her neighbors for help, but her new boyfriend (Derek Luke, of "Antwone Fisher") is out, not around to help.
Elsewhere, April's family - Mom (Patricia Clarkson), Dad (Oliver Platt), brother Timmy (John Gallagher Jr.), sister Beth (Alison Pill), and senile Grandma (Alice Drummond) have all piled into the car and are heading into the city to try and renew their relationship with their daughter, who they've hardly seen or heard from. A sad, tragic event gives the two groups further reason to meet up - April's mother is dying of cancer.
Both tales provide a mixture of comedy and drama that is handled pretty well, considering it could have either turned uneasy, sitcomish or too sentimental. There's some very funny moments here, including April calling the police due to the fact that her neighbor (Sean Hayes, in an odd role) is holding her turkey hostage. The performances also are quite superb: the Oscar-nominated Clarkson offers a moving, powerful performance, while Platt and Holmes are also highlights. The film's awfully quick 81-minute running time also keeps things moving at a surprisingly brisk pace. The handheld digital video cinematography is gritty and sometimes offers that slightly smeary "DV" look, but here, it actually works to bring viewers into the situations and gives the film a personality.
Still, there are some things that certainly don't work here. The senile grandmother character is too much of a device, saying the "unexpected" whenever the film needs something along those lines. The whole subplot about April's boyfriend leaving her while she races to prepare dinner was also unnecessary.
Still, for the few loose ends that "Pieces of April" leaves hanging, the film really does a couple of things right. Holmes provides a great effort in trying to portray a sympathetic 20-something who is doing her best to try and be independent and show her family that she's matured. As the film hits its second half, the film's character's have been nicely developed, the story builds nicely and the message of unconditional love and the importance of family really do feel sincere and genuine.
While I had concerns with aspects of "Pieces of April", it's otherwise a very well-done debut from writer/director Peter Hedges (screenwriter of "What's Eating Gilbert Grape" and "About A Boy"), who based aspects of the film upon his own real-life experiences.
VIDEO: "Pieces of April" is presented by MGM in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen and 1.33:1 full-frame. The film's low-budget DV appearance is generally well-handled by this transfer. Those who see the film should go in not expecting slick-looking studio fare. That said, sharpness and detail are varied throughout the film and while some scenes achieve a pretty satisfactory level of detail, others look soft.
Edge enhancement was not an issue during the film, but some noticable compression artifacts were spotted, and a couple of small print flaws were also seen. The film's rather dark, earthy color palette looks satisfactory.
SOUND: "Pieces of April" is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1 by MGM. Aside from a couple of brief, minor instances, this could have easily been a 2.0 presentation. Dialogue is generally clear, aside from a few minor instances where louder dialogue seemed a bit distorted or shrill.
EXTRAS: Writer/director Peter Hedges offers a very good commentary for the film. Hedges discusses the film's casting, working with digital video, the film's quick schedule (16 days)/low-budget and development of the story. The DVD's other main feature is "All The Pieces Together", a 15-minute "making of" featurette that offers behind-the-scenes clips and interviews with the cast and director. Also present are the film's theatrical trailer and promos for other MGM titles.
Final Thoughts: A heartfelt family drama with moments of sharp comedy, "Pieces of April" offers compelling characters, fine performances and a tale that, at 81 minutes, pretty much all of the fat has been trimmed from. MGM's DVD edition generally handles the DV cinematography well, has decent audio and a few good supplements. Recommended, at least as a rental.