Review by Harvey Karten
3½ stars out of 4
Having written the novel for "What's Eating Gilbert Grape?" (a
slice-of-life about a young man responsible for taking care of
his retarded younger brother since their obese mother had not
left the house in seven years), Peter Hedges was the ideal
person to script and direct this off-beat story of a dysfunctional
family forced to confront one another on Thanksgiving Day.
"Pieces of April" is in part a tale of family reconciliation,
motivated in large part by the a dying mother's wish to break
bread together as an entire unit. In part, Hedges evokes the
glory of Manhattan, whose diversity of inhabitants has been
responsible for both the sort of alienation that prevents us often
from knowing our next-door neighbors, while at the same
Hedges evokes a love letter to the world's most exciting city.
The writer-director's photographer, Tami Reiker, trains her
lenses on disparate scenes during the sixteen-day shoot. One
segment focuses on the tenants in a Lower East Side
dilapidated building (on the ironically named Suffolk Street),
whose twenty-something April Burns (Katie Holmes) shares a
tiny apartment with her boy friend, Bobby (Derek Luke). The
other catches the young woman's family in their station wagon;
Joy Burns (Patricia Clarkson) and Jim Burns (Oliver Platt), her
two younger sibs Timmy (John Gallagher Jr.) and Beth (Alison
Pill), and her senile grandmother, appropriately named Dottie
(Alice Drummond). As Hedges shifts from the nabe to the
wagon and back again, we watch the big Thanksgiving Day
reunion takes root.
New Yorkers may well relate more to the progress of April's
meetings with her neighbors than to the evolution of the
approaching family get-together. In a building that could be a
microcosm fo the Big Apple, April is pushed by a breakdown in
her oven to knock on the doors of fellow tenants whom she had
never met. Looking to lease a gas range for a few hours on that
fateful day, she encounters, in turn, a black couple who wonder
just what sort of a problem could possibly be faced by a "young,
privileged white woman with the rest of her life to look forward
to;" a Chinese family who do not speak English; an introverted
dandy who allows her to use his brand new convection unit but
with a price; a vegan with posters of her politics tacked to her
door; and one of two guys who slam the door in her face.
The dramatic tensions of the suburban segment of the Burns
family are not as compelling. Jim must remind his teens that
though they may not like the idea of visiting their older sister,
this could be their cancer-ridden mother's last chance to enjoy
the holiday as a whole family unit. For her part, Joy (also
ironically named at least until the concluding scenes) is bitter.
Her illness has turned her personality around to such an extent
that the woman's dotty mother no longer recognizes her (if
indeed she did at any point during her senescence).
Despite the brief length of the film, two scenes do not work
and seem almost part of another movie. In one, Bobby takes off
to leave his girlfriend to her cooking, meeting up with a friend,
Latrell (Sisqo), who fits him out with a suit from a Salvation
Army store. The other involves Bobby, scooting his way home
and running into Tyrone (a white guy formerly called Eddie),
who berates him for stealing his girl.
On the whole, "Pieces of April," a heartfelt story full of laughs,
intrigue, regrets and memories, makes for an impressive billet-
doux to both family life and to the unexpected pleasures of living
in a tenement building chock full of eccentric but mostly friendly
and generous neighbors.
Copyright © 2003 Harvey Karten