Pieces of April

It has been a while since I did a movie review. Maybe it's time.

I saw Pieces of April early last spring with my family.

I wanted to write about it then, but I had just done a spate of movie reviews so I saved a note as draft with the subject "Pieces of April" and a two-word reminder to get me thinking about the movie. It read "pristine disasters."

Contrary to how most guys were probably coaxed into seeing this independently styled film with the art-house feel, I was not drawn to this movie because of Katie Holmes.

In fact, until I saw this movie, I didn't even know who she was. If you haven't seen Pieces of April yet because you were put off by Ms. Holmes' terrible acting in other films (Batman Begins, for instance), or you find her behaviour in this idiotically nicknamed "TomKat" fiasco abhorrent, put those concerns aside for this movie.

I was drawn to it first because the wonderful Oliver Platt plays Jim Burns, April's concerned and overworked father, defending (often to his detriment) a daughter that sometimes seems determined to fuck everything up. Of all the names associated with the film (including Peter Hedges, Patricia Clarkson and Derek Luke), it was his name that motivated me to see it.

The premise for the film is that the oldest daughter of the Burn's family, April, has invited her parents, siblings, and senile grandmother to Thanksgiving dinner for the first time. April is the black sheep of the family, living in a run-down apartment complex with her new boyfriend, Bobby (Derek Luke) and eking out those tentative existences that disaster-prone young women seem to spin out of a mixture of dreams, goodwill clothes, and cheap plastic. The story unfolds over the course of Thanksgiving day, following the two independent threads on a collision course: the Burn's leaving from their home in the country to drive to the city for dinner, fretting over the entire trip about what they will find there, and April, attempting to surmount a rapidly growing pile of problems to cook a dinner her family will be proud of.

Mr. Platt, of course, turns out an excellent performance. So does the rest of the cast. Derek Luke, fighting to be the hero his girlfriend needs, is heartwarming and believable. Patricia Clarkson shines as the bitter, cancer-riddled mother, incapable of believing her daughter will get anything right. Katie Holmes delivers a wonderful performance as the perpetual 'bad girl' of the family, trying in the best way she knows how to do something for which they will love her. The supporting cast of apartment neighbors to April is engaging and funny, making us glower with indignation at their injustices but also smile with pride at their hospitality.

Peter Hedges' screenplay is sharp, burning with a sarcastic wit and moments of truth. It makes a celebration of the odd mixture of kindness and coldheartedness that all American cities seem to foster, especially around the holidays when things become stressful. The actors seem to understand this awkwardness and it bleeds into their performances in subtle, believable ways.

The camera work captures a quirky art film style without being pointlessly distracting. There are almost no wide shots and the part of the movie that follows April almost gives you a sense of claustrophobia, all shot as it is in tiny apartment kitchens and hallways. I don't think any soundstages were used. The combination of this style of cinematography and the use of a low quality, almost home-video-esque film effect makes the viewer feel as if you really have stepped into someone else's holiday story.

Guys, bring your sense of youthful compassion. Ladies, bring Kleenex.

The movie is heart wrenching, heart warming, and lovely. It captures the essence of the modern American holiday season in myriad ways I can't even begin to describe. It portrays each disaster as a pristine portion of a larger whole, a whole that cannot be reached without hope. Hope that we will succeed. Hope that our family will have grace for us. Hope that the holiday season might turn out to be about more than properly cooked turkey and snide remarks about our siblings' past failures.

In short: if you're looking for a different kind of holiday movie this year, I highly recommend Pieces of April.

Thursday, September 15, 2005