Katie Holmes was always prone to playing more glamorous and squeaky clean roles back in 2003, but for “Pieces of April” she’s the center of what is a unique Thanksgiving set film. Peter Hedges film is all at once a funny, heartbreaking, and thought provoking film. It’s a film about redemption, and ultimately about forgiveness. Can we forgive someone who has hurt us over and over? Can we forgive someone who almost went out of our way to hurt us in the past? Can we forgive ourselves for the heinous things we’ve done in the past to our loved ones, if we work hard at redemption?
Katie Holmes is fantastic as young April, a young girl living in the inner city who invites her family to her apartment to celebrate Thanksgiving with her. Unfortunately, as they prepare to re-unite with her, there is still some bad blood between them. This is especially true with her mother Joy, who is still sore about her past with April, who she often spent much of her time fighting with her throughout her childhood. Joy is very sick with cancer, and is forcing herself to endure the trip, but as the journey progresses, she begins to wonder if it’s even worth allowing April a chance for forgiveness.
This is especially a heavy thought weighing on her, as she considers that she might be spending her very last Thanksgiving with her family. Along with Patricia Clarkson, there’s the always charming Oliver Platt, the adorable Allison Pill, John Gallagher Jr., and Alice Drummond, an eccentric woman and the grandmother, who spends much of her time drifting in and out of the conversations set in the car ride.
For April, the thanksgiving we meet her is everything to her. And it might be everything to her family. Holmes’ work as a reformed juvenile delinquent is rich and entertaining, especially as her character April spends her entire time trying to prove to herself that she can get problems solved without resorting to criminal activities. When she finds herself facing obstacle after obstacle in the way of finishing her Thanksgiving meal for her family (thanks to a malfunctioning oven), she’s crosses paths with neighbors she’s never met before who she has to rely on for the first time.
Some of them are sweet and understanding while others test the very fabric of her patience and she has to learn how to work around them. Sean Hayes is especially memorable as a difficult neighbor who seems to almost garner pleasure from the way he puts April through hell for the sake of her big event. Derek Luke as April’s boyfriend is also a highlight as he spends most of the film looking for a chance to make a great first impression on the family, and his scenario all boils down to a confrontation with her ex-boyfriend which about dampens his entire effort.
The cast is absolutely brilliant in the way they portray this family struggling to maintain some sense of normalcy in the light of April’s invitation. There is so much left unsaid and so much that they want to say to one another that it boils over in to a scene where Joy jumps out of the car on the side of the road and angrily thinks back to her troubled past with April. Patricia Clarkson is sublime as this strong woman slowly fading away from her cancer, who has to build on the strength to forgive this one last time. She’s a stubborn woman who also is a mother and with mothers it’s tough to hate your children.
There’s also John Gallagher Jr. and Allison Pill, both of whom are polar opposites, including Gallagher who is hilarious as son Timmy who approaches every bickering match with a sarcastic quip. Some of his most genuine moments involve him smoking weed with Joy, alleviating her inherent pain during her illness, as she giggles and enjoys the relief for fleeting moments, embracing what time she has with her only son.
“Pieces of April” is filled with all kinds of subtle moments that are either bittersweet or downright heartbreaking, from April beating herself up about her past, he struggle to fix her imperfect Thanksgiving set up in her small apartment, and the ultimate finale where Peter Hedges ends on an uncertain note, depicting April’s efforts to redeem herself in the eyes of her only family in the world, but a lot of expressed by the cast and the way they embrace April.
It’s heartbreaking when Joy nods off during the car trip, causing husband Jim to assume for a moment that she’d died in her sleep. His relieved sighs followed by whimpers is gut wrenching, as this is a man who’s obviously endured a lot of pain playing the peace keeper in his family, who allows himself to be vulnerable for one moment. We also get a glimpse of how he may respond if Joy passes away.
By extension, “Pieces of April” also serves as a reminder of how New Yorkers tend to come together and set aside all biases when one of their own is in dire straits. After 9/11, a lot of filmmakers injected the idea of the beauty and unity of New York and the people within it, and April manages to find many of them willing to do what ever it takes to help their neighbor, in spite of vast cultural differences and language barriers.
“Pieces of April” is an unlikely holiday gem that deserves a lot more fanfare and discussion, as it’s a true thanksgiving picture through and through that pays tribute to the ideas of family, forgiveness, and the importance of certain holidays.