Thanksgiving just wouldn’t be Thanksgiving without a dysfunctional family reunion, but writer-director Peter Hedges comes up with an original take on the holiday disaster theme in the quiet gem “Pieces of April.”
This time it's the estranged daughter who tries to unite a divided family over barely cooked turkey, plus a bitter, dying mother who wants no part of it.
In his directorial debut, Hedges — who wrote the novel and screenplay for “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?” and the screenplay for “About a Boy” — gives actress Patricia Clarkson a role to treasure: an angry cancer victim named Joy.
No saint for Hedges, no nurturing mother, no words of wisdom. It’s sheer rotten luck to be dying in your 40s — especially when your own mother is well into her 80s — and Clarkson makes the most of Joy’s unhappy predicament.
She’s a sardonic Mommie Dearest in a badly fitting wig.
Breathtakingly mean, astonishingly self-centered, Joy lambasts her husband Jim (Oliver Platt), mocks her two teens and despises her eldest daughter April (Katie Holmes), who has invited the family to her New York apartment for a Thanksgiving dinner.
And of course, since Joy is dying, the family cannot fight back.
Note how she warms to daughter Beth (Alison Pill), an obsessive goody-goody trying to cheer her mother up with a song or two as the family station wagon rumbles on toward the city.
“Any requests?” Beth asks.
“That you stop,” Joy snaps.
Joy also insists she doesn’t have a single warm memory of April, waxes on about sexual exploits before her horrified teens and begs her husband to turn the car around and head to a fast food joint for a real holiday dinner.
Winning Performances This is the latest in a string of award-winning performances for Clarkson, which also include roles in “Far from Heaven,” “The Station Agent” and the HBO series “Six Feet Under.”
Back at her New York tenement, April finds that her oven is kaput. A kaleidoscope of neighbors emerge as April knocks on doors, desperately trying to find a way to cook a very raw bird.
Despite April’s maroon-haired grunge look, there’s no sign of the devil child that Joy remembers. Holmes appears every bit as sweet, determined and conflicted as she did for years as Joey on the WB’s “Dawson’s Creek.”
Was April really the rebellious soul who liked matches? Or was her mother just so angry at her own teenage pregnancy that she rejected the child who came of it? It’s not really clear.
Hedges leavens the heavy moments with side dishes of humor — April is quite the novice cook, the family excursion is certainly a road trip from hell. Why cut an onion in pieces when you can stuff it whole in the bird?
Platt, as the father and husband, brings a quiet gravity to the movie, a far cry from his bombastic turn on NBC’s “The West Wing.”
Fairly short and tightly focused, Hedges’ movie feels more like a short story than a novel, a quick glimpse as opposed to a sweeping story. It might leave some audiences a bit hungry, looking for more.
Shot in digital film, the movie’s grainy yellow hues are eerily reminiscent of fading family photos from the ’70s. After all, this is the last Thanksgiving for the entire Burns family, and they know it.