Pieces of April

December, 2002, Comedy

Directed by:Peter Hedges

Starring:Katie Holmes, Derek Luke, Oliver Platt, and Patricia Clarkson

Pieces Of April

A couple of weeks before the much-ballyhooed British holiday-comedy Love Actually wafted onto the nation's screens, this small, unobtrusive paean to the quirky possibilities of celebrating Thanksgiving opened quietly here in New York. It's been building an audience steadily ever since, one it richly deserves; April is that rarity in pre-holiday film offerings, a delightful comedy with pungent observations about how Americans celebrate this quintessentially national tradition. See it and you'll probably recognize the kind of relatives that bloom on your family tree.

These two movies have something in common beyond their holiday-based plotlines; they're both directorial debuts from writers who've achieved considerable previous commercial success as screenwriters.  Richard Curtis, responsible for the overstuffed self-satisfaction that sinks Love Actually, his first directorial outing, fails due to its smarmy over-reaching-- but April writer/director Peter Hedges, (responsible for the book and screenplay What's Eating Gilbert Grape? as well as the script for last year's About A Boy) has the good judgment to handle his material with a wan bemusement that sneaks up and steals his audience's affections as unobtrusively as a pickpocket lifting a wallet.

The events in April cover the first part of a single Thanksgiving Day. Katie Holmes plays April Burns, disengaged from her New Jersey-based suburbanite family, and living precariously--punk wardrobe, body piercing et al--on the Lower East Side with her new boyfriend Bobby. Estranged from her caustic mother, (Patricia Clarkson) an enigma to her long suffering father, (Oliver Platt) and source of fascinating irritation to her geeky brother and relentlessly conventional younger sister, (Alison Pill) April decides to invite them into the city to meet her new beau and attempt a reconciliation with her   terminally ill Mom. 

Hedges storyline is simplicity itself; he simply presents this young girl’s increasingly frantic efforts to put a culinary feast on the table with the aid of some unconventional neighbors in her low-rent building, all interspersed with scenes of the Burns's in their station wagon as they head toward the city and a meal they're convinced will inevitably descend into predictable, familial calamity. That it does and doesn't, and what's learned in the process on this societally-mandated day of "togetherness" only requires 75 minutes to relate, but it's time enough for the director to generate more bemused recognition and flat-out laughter than anything else you're likely to see for the remainder of the year. 

The cast is terrific, with special kudos to Ms. Holmes as April, and Ms. Clarkson as her tart-tongued, imperious Mom. Alison Pill, (was ever the real name of an actress more perfectly suited to her role?) steals every scene she's in with the sort of awkward, neediness only a truly jealous younger sibling can possess. April's Grandmother, eyes alternately glazed with the onset of senility and the serenity of old age, provides a bittersweet reminder that growing old presents challenges many in the audience will identify with from personal experience. The sketches Hughes provides of this family are spot-on; despite slightly exaggerated individual foibles, they are not dysfunctional, just highly recognizable. If you're over the age of consent, you've grappled with these types in your own life, if only for a day or two over the holidays. 

Shot with great simplicity using digital equipment rather than conventional film, Pieces of April might pass as a very talented student film, were it not the latest effort from Indegent Films, a new film production company combining emerging technology with fresh writing and acting talent to present unconventional movies that don't cost a fortune to get on the screen. As this effort so perfectly demonstrates, they're on to something. 

Holiday advice? Skip Love Actually altogether, and save your money for this small but nifty gem.

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