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Friday, October 24, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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A rebel, her family, Thanksgiving dinner in 'Pieces of April'

Seattle Times movie critic

Sometimes, the bumpiest of journeys ends up, "Wizard of Oz"-style, in the very best of places. Such is the case with "Pieces of April," a wobbly but good-hearted indie from first-time director Peter Hedges.

At barely 81 minutes, it's a mere wisp of a story, in which a suburban family heads to New York City for a Thanksgiving dinner hosted by its most rebellious member, daughter April (Katie Holmes). This may well be the Burns' last holiday meal together, as mother Joy (Patricia Clarkson) is in the late stages of illness.

So yes, fasten your seat belts — it's a dysfunctional family/Thanksgiving/road trip movie, and it takes a few detours before its final destination. The film takes place in the space of one day; scenes of April struggling through dinner preparations in her grubby tenement flat are interspersed with tense moments in the family car, loaded with Mom, Dad, senile Grandma, surly brother Timmy and chirpy sister Beth.

It's two very different universes, both depicted with little subtlety: April lives in the Apartment House of Stereotypes, in which all of her diverse neighbors are defined by their race or their beliefs; the Burns' sterile-white world looks lifeless and frozen, as if it hasn't changed for decades.

Movie review


***
"Pieces of April," with Katie Holmes, Patricia Clarkson, Derek Luke, Oliver Platt, John Gallagher Jr., Alison Pill. Written and directed by Peter Hedges. 81 minutes. Rated PG-13 for language, sensuality, drug content and images of nudity. Guild 45th.

Nonetheless, the film grows on you. Hedges understands the emotional pull of the Thanksgiving holiday for a troubled family (or for any family; we'll all fill in our own holiday memories while watching this film), and you find yourself rooting for April, whose tattoos and punky tatters can't hide a fundamentally sweet nature. In her filthy kitchen, she shoves whole celery stalks into the turkey cavity, frets about recipes, crosses things off her to-do list, wonders where her boyfriend, Bobby (Derek Luke), has got to — and ends up making the rounds of the building, in search of a working stove.

Meanwhile, in the car, Clarkson is working a small miracle with the role of Joy. Sitting amid the family's whirlwind of false cheer and careful tiptoeing, she gives this woman a wry sense of humor — cancer has given her a get-out-of-jail-free card, and she knows it. When the insufferable Beth (Alison Pill, so good at playing a twit that you want to slap her) entertains the car with a lifeless aria, Joy flatly tells her to stop; it's as if she's been wanting to say that for years.

This mother is no saint; she's deeply conflicted in her feelings toward her daughter — how can she love April, when April grew up determined to be unlovable? Nonetheless, Joy wants to make a memory, one that will overcome the pain we see in her eyes.

The Burns family isn't Christmas-card perfect, and neither is this movie. (In particular, Bobby's subplot, though played with a touching gentleness by Luke, is unnecessary and contrived.) "Pieces of April" is ultimately a tear-jerker, but not for the reason you might guess. The tears are earned; the flaws are forgiven; Hedges has shown us, in the end, a picture of love.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company

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