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Wednesday, Oct. 13, 2004

Let us give thanks

Pieces of April

Rating: * * * * (out of 5)
Director: Peter Hedges
Running time: 80 minutes
Language: English
Opens Oct. 30
[See Japan Times movie listings]

Thanksgiving, that most American of American holidays, has always awed me. Not only does everyone get to reunite with family members often unglimpsed for the rest of the year, but the occasion is also marked by a high-fat, high-sugar, high-starch meal that takes hours to consume and days to digest. Now that's what I call a holiday. Christmas, on the other hand, is a bit more complicated and has the added stress of gift-giving and the subsequent gaping black hole in one's bank account.

News photo
Katie Holmes in "Pieces of April"

Perhaps this is why Thanksgiving movies ("Hannah and Her Sisters," "The Scent of a Woman") tend to yield better crops than Christmas (uh, "Jingle All the Way?"). And now, we can add "Pieces of April," whose centerpiece is a big fat turkey stuffed to bursting, to the list of great Thanksgiving flicks.

One of this movie's first great moments is when title character April (played by Katie Holmes, exuding a brilliant, understated poutiness), the wild child of a suburban family, reluctantly gets up to prepare a turkey dinner for her estranged folks, who are due to drive up to Manhattan where she lives. As she gingerly handles the bird with disgust (goth-punk April has never cooked in her life), she mutters, "Let's just forget it. They're probably not even gonna show up."

Directed by Peter Hedges (author of "What's Eating Gilbert Grape?"), who dedicated this directorial debut work to his late mother, "Pieces of April" is funny, irreverent and totally liberated from family-movie goo and phoniness. Shot entirely with a digital camera over a period of three weeks, it has a warm, artsy-craftsy feel that's never amateurish -- like a home movie shot by a grand auteur just for the fun of it.

In the production notes Hedges says he had wanted to make something that would get people talking about their Thanksgiving reunions, or maybe get on the phone to call their moms, and that's exactly the response it elicits. Strange (or not strange at all) considering that not one moment in "Pieces of April" is about family love and togetherness.

April and her folks have been incommunicado for years, and she and her mother have been feuding since her birth. On this day, as the family drives up to New York, April's mom Joy (played by Patricia Clarkson, who really should have won that Academy Award long ago) urges packets of junk food on everyone, in the steely conviction that there's no way April can provide a decent meal.

Standing over the grimy sink in her Lower East Side walk-up, April is about to feel the exact same way. Her boyfriend Bobby (Derek Luke) sweetly pep-talks her into making the stuffing, helps her baste the turkey (which she drops on the floor, then throws in the sink) and promptly disappears on a mysterious errand. Alone, April struggles with things like mashed potatoes (she tries to mash them raw, with a fork), a Waldorf Salad consisting mostly of nuts, and cranberry sauce out of a can.

It gets worse. April finds out that the stove is broken. Bearing the raw turkey on a platter, she enlists the grudging assistance of her neighbors (who have their own cooking to do) to let her use the stove an hour here, another hour there. Finally, when an elderly Chinese couple who don't speak English throw open their oven for her exclusive use, to express her thanks, April tells them the story of Thanksgiving: "It was . . . ummm . . . one day in which everyone, uh, needed each other." The camera lingers over the other details of April's frantic preparations: making the place cards for the table (there's a moment of indecision as to whether she should write "Mom" or "Joy" before she opts for the latter); blowing up balloons; decorating the hallways and staircases with crepe paper.

On the road to N.Y., Joy alternates between black moods (instigated by awful memories of April) and throwing up in various gas-station restrooms (instigated by doughnuts and potato chips). Her goody-goody daughter Bess (Alison Pill) solicitously expresses concern while her pothead teenage son Timmy (John Gallagher Jr.) rolls her a joint and lets her listen to Smack Daddy on his headphones. Throughout, Joy's husband (Oliver Platt) is the epitome of optimistic good cheer, while the senile grandma (Alice Drommond), despite her Alzheimer's, fires zinger remarks at all the appropriate moments ("The daughter I had was a sweet, soft-spoken woman. What happened to her?").

Joy, though, has had a mastectomy and her cancer is terminal -- she knows this may be the last chance of a reconciliation with April. But she's also too enraged at all the bad history to attend this dinner with good grace. ("She bit my nipples when I tried to breast-feed her! No wonder there's cancer!")

Hedges saves the best scenes for the last, and it's to his credit that none of it is preachy or wise or even very emotional. (No one for example, blurts out "I love you" which when you think about it, is about the coolest thing that can happen in a movie about family.) But the sequence of frames do show that April was right: Thanksgiving is a day on which everyone, uh, needs each other. And then for better or worse, that day ends.

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