In a movie-going world filled with star vehicles and directors doing crap films for the paycheck, Pieces of April shines through as an indie gem made with a shoestring budget and a lot of heart.
Pieces of April is the directorial debut of screenwriter Peter Hedges. In addition to directing, Hedges penned the script. Though Pieces of April does not outshine his previous writing efforts (About A Boy and What's Eating Gilbert Grape?), it wins huge points for its sincerity.
April is the self-described "first pancake" (the one you throw out) in her family. After a rocky adolescence, 20-something April decides to make good with "the fam" by inviting the straight-laced group for Thanksgiving dinner at her Manhattan apartment. Reluctantly, the family agrees to her invitation and the film begins on Thanksgiving morning.
As Mom, Dad, brother and sister load into the car to make the journey from suburban Pennsylvania, April is busy starting dinner. As she haphazardly crams stuffing mix into the turkey, I could hear my mother's voice in my head, "What does that girl think she's doing?" But the redeeming thing is, April is doing the best she can. When, moments later, the oven dies, you wonder if that's how it's been all along for April: she's not a bad person, her life is simply a comedy of errors.
As April struggles to find someone with a spare oven on Thanksgiving day, the family continues on their road trip. Beth, the "perfect" daughter expects the dinner to be a disaster, Dad tries to keep the peace and Mom is simply curious to see how the disaster will manifest itself.
Hedges adds an emotional layer to the story by revealing that Mom is suffering from a serious illness. But rather than using this element to weave in melodrama, Hedges gives us a Mom who tries to make the most of her life. Played expertly by Patricia Clarkson, and based on Hedges' own mother, April's mom smokes pot, listens to rap music and puts the smarmy younger sister in her place.
Filmed in digital video on a microscopic budget, Pieces of April is a decent first directorial effort. The filmmaking is a little wobbly, literally, the handheld DV is shaky at times, but its unpolished nature adds to the film's charm. Indie rockers will delight at the film's soundtrack of Stephin Merritt projects.
The real strength of this film is its universally understood story. Anyone who feels culturally estranged from their family, or has experienced an awkward familial road trip will find something to appreciate in Pieces of April. Hedges has expertly garnished the script with wonderful little moments that clearly came from life experience. When Dad unexpectedly runs over a squirrel, the family conducts a funeral and burial. When April finds some neighbors with an oven, she is given a long lecture on the right way to make Thanksgiving dinner.
As for Katie Holmes, she neither recommends nor ruins the film. The role is well-written enough that any experienced actress would be hard-pressed screw it up.
Pieces of April is a charming and perfectly accessible piece of indie filmmaking. Though a little rough around the edges, its problems are easy to overlook given the film's sincere intentions to warm the heart.
Megan A. Denny