Katie Holmes dyes her hair black and red and dons baggy, paint-splattered cutoffs for her portrayal of punk-girl April Burns in Peter Hedges’ directorial debut, “Pieces of April.” Holmes’ black eyeliner, chipped black nail polish, and her uncommonly sullen facial expression do a good job disguising her Joey Potter-ness, and you almost forget she is the same actress who starred in “Dawson’s Creek.”
In this quirky and endearing Indie flick, April shares her cramped, graffiti-covered Lower East Side apartment with her live-in boyfriend Bobby (Derek Luke from “Antwone Fisher”). The story line is simple — April, who is estranged from her parents, plans to host Thanksgiving dinner at her place, and this year her family is invited.
The movie was shot on a shoestring budget, and with such an eclectic cast, “Pieces of April” proves to be a character film. If Norman Rockwell painted portraits of pained, dysfunctional families, the Burnses would be his ideal subject matter. Joy Burns (Patricia Clarkson), is the mother who is dying of breast cancer. April’s kid sister Beth (Alison Pill) is an annoyingly perfect choirgirl who dishes out obnoxious platitudes to her parents. April’s brother Timmy (John Gallagher, Jr.) is a spaced-out photographer, and her father Jim (Oliver Platt) is a weary businessman who always seems to look like he has woken from a groggy sleep.
The film jumps between April’s apartment, where she hastily prepares the Thanksgiving feast, and the inside of the Burnses’ family car as they drive to meet April. The inevitable tension and the anticipation of family reunion is broken up with humor. When April’s stove fails to work, she hunts, turkey in arm, for another functioning oven. Along the way, she encounters several of her neighbors and hopes to find one willing to help her out. During her search, she meets a cross-section of New York stereotypes: there’s the jovial, rotund black couple who tsk at her use of boxed stuffing and the immigrant Chinese family to whom April tries to explain the purpose of Thanksgiving. But the highlight is the appearance of Wayne (Sean Hayes of “Will and Grace”), a terrier-toting snob who not only lives in the penthouse, but is also in possession of a brand-new, state-of-the-art stainless steel stove. It’s a laugh to see Wayne chastise April’s lack of manners by holding her turkey hostage.
Though at times cheesy and sentimental, the film is saved by Hedges’ (who wrote “About a Boy” and “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape”) wry and caustic dialogue. Look for the scene where Mrs. Burns and her son get high in a gas station bathroom to ease her cancer treatment pain. Great humor results when she gets back in the car and in a state of drug-induced bliss tells her family exactly what she thinks of them.
Interspersed between the vignettes in the car and April’s preparation of chunky mashed potatoes and canned cranberry sludge are hints of the Burns family’s emotional pain. The characters are interesting and steadily developed, and tension swells in anticipation of the family’s eventual reunion. There is great potential for a powerful final scene, but Hedges, who also wrote the script, chickens out and glosses over the end with a sappy tag-on ending that does not ring true with the rest of the film.
In “Pieces of April,” Hedges certainly shows promise as a new director. And Holmes tries hard to bust out of her sex-kitten role pigeonhole, but in the end, the film does not pay off. Maybe Hedges felt gushy anticipating the upcoming holiday season and thought it apt to end his film with such saccharine closure. But for a film that wittily and consistently shows its audience the hard edge of its shoulder, the giant bearhug it gives at the end is not a fitting one.