When we first meet April, she’s reluctantly being woken up by her boyfriend. Appropriate really, as Pieces Of April is a film about people who need to wake up to deal with what’s really important. If that sounds a bit sappy don’t be put off – Peter Hedges (the screenwriter for What’s Eating Gilbert Grape and About A Boy) has created an understated treasure of a film here.
Katie Holmes plays the titular April, a proverbial black sheep, who has invited her estranged family to Thanksgiving dinner at her run down apartment on New York’s Lower East Side. However, April’s day rapidly turns into chaos when her oven breaks down, leading to her searching desperately for a friendly neighbour in order to help cook her turkey.
We also meet April’s family as they travel towards Manhattan – most notably her mother (an Oscar nominated performance from Patricia Clarkson) who’s suffering from cancer and has a fractious relationship with her daughter. It’s a simple plot, dealing with notions of family and community shot in a suitably intimate style on a hand held digital video camera.
Now that Dawson’s Creek, the TV show that made her name, has finished, it’s time for Katie Holmes to prove that she can make the transition to big screen actress. After a succession of interesting supporting characters in films such as Phone Booth, Go and The Gift, she is excellent in her first lead role. She strikes just the right balance between toughness and vulnerability and also proves to be an excellent comic actress in the scenes interacting with the apartment block’s cast of eccentric neighbours.
Patricia Clarkson also does a superb job with the difficult character of Joy. She’s not particularly likeable but she conveys her heartbreak and pain perfectly. Another actress may have played Joy as a victim – Clarkson has her railing against life’s injustices as she contemplates the mess that her relationship with her daughter has become. With roles in this, Dogville and The Station Agent, Clarkson’s time is most definitely now. Of the supporting cast, Oliver Platt is as solid as ever and Sean Hayes, from TV’s Will And Grace, has a fantastic cameo as April’s creepy neighbour.
Pieces Of April is a very short film – maybe too short. 80 minutes is not really long enough to explore these characters. We never really find out quite why April is so estranged from her mother and an extra 20 minutes or so of back story would have helped to have flesh the film out. Also, some of the character’s actions don’t ring true – one of April’s neighbours goes from being hostile to helpful in a matter of minutes.
Yet if first time director Hedges’ inexperience shows sometimes, it doesn’t really matter as the performances are strong enough to carry the film. In this age of big budgets and special effect overkill it’s heartening to know that some film makers still realise that a simple story and well drawn characters can go a long way.