Much like the domestically challenged title character’s inauspicious efforts to stuff a turkey in the opening scenes, Pieces of April is a movie you can easily imagine going wrong early on. The moment I realized the movie was working for me was when I realized that I was rooting for it to work, just as I was rooting for young April (Katie Holmes), with her punk-Goth accoutrements, checkered past, and seedy lower East Side neighborhood, as she awkwardly went about preparing her first Thanksgiving dinner for the equally uneasy occupants of the family station wagon making its first trip to April’s new digs.
Slyly, disarmingly, this bittersweet comedy-drama got past my defenses and got me in its corner, caring about its flawed, wounded characters, wanting to see them heed their better angels and overcome the legacy of their past mistakes and disappointments. Blending indie cred and reassuring sentiment, Pieces of April portrays its characters for the most part both honestly and warmly, with an eye to their foibles but not without affection.
The film’s central conceit involves an unexpected culinary snag of anxiety-nightmare proportions mere hours before April’s family is to arrive, which forces April to appeal for help to her hitherto unknown neighbors, the previously anonymous faces in the hallways of her apartment building. It’s an updated version of the Pilgrims and the Indians — a point the film drives home just a bit too cutely as April tries to explain the meaning of Thanksgiving to a large Asian family: "There came a day when they knew they needed each other, when they knew they couldn’t do it alone."
Just as important to the story is the theme of family unity and overcoming estrangement. Barely into her twenties, April is the proverbial black sheep of the family, with a history of rebellion, drugs, shoplifting, tattoos and piercings, and bad-news boyfriends. Her long-suffering, stolidly supportive father (Oliver Platt) wants to believe that she’s finally turning her life around and that her current too-good-to-be-true boyfriend Bobby (Derek Luke, Antwone Fisher) isn’t like the others; he’s the only family member who wants to give April the benefit of the doubt, and is the driving force behind the reunion.
April’s mother (Patricia Clarkson, Far From Heaven) is another story. Bitter and hyper-critical, she is dying of cancer, and her condition casts a fateful shadow over the occasion, since this get-together may be not only the last family Thanksgiving together, but a last chance at reconciliation between mother and daughter.
There’s also perfect-daughter Beth (Alison Pill, who is one), one of the film’s least nuanced characters; awkward son Timmy (John Gallagher Jr.), who hides his emotions behind his camera; and Grandma Dottie (Alice Drummond), who is; or rather, who has Alzheimer’s, but who gets one telling line anyway.
Meanwhile, like April’s family venturing into her dilapidated new surroundings, April herself finds that she must step out of her comfort zone and knock on doors she would just as soon leave alone. April’s dilapidated apartment building turns out to be a drolly diverse cross-section of New York society. Some refuse outright to help or even to speak to her; some don’t speak the same language; some offer to help but then turn out to have issues that make it difficult or impossible for April to get what she needs.
A woman who brandishes her politics on her apartment door at first seems agreeable, but then unexpectedly reveals a principled aversion to meat, and not even April’s credentials as a vegetarian can win her over, since she is a vegan. A Hispanic man genially opens his door to April with a friendly "Mi casa, su casa," but what April sees there stops her dead in her tracks. A fastidious chap with an impressive new oven is some help, but turns out to be a bit more unhinged than he initially seems (though April doesn’t handle him as well as she might have).
Most helpful are a cheerily domestic black couple (Lillias White and Isiah Whitlock Jr.) who initially laugh in April’s face when she says she has a problem — white people aren’t supposed to have problems — but are quickly won over by her sob story; and the initially uncomprehending Asian family with whom she eventually manages to communicate somehow or other.
I wasn’t keeping score, but looking back it seems to me that the really positively portrayed characters are pretty much all minorities, and the really negatively portrayed characters are pretty much all white. Exacerbating this issue are a series of race-baiting plot twists leading viewers or characters to see black characters in a bad light, then reversing these expectations — though one of these reversals comes as a welcome relief.
It’s a limited flaw in a film that depicts few prominent characters in entirely black-and-white terms and has affection for nearly all its important characters. Another issue is April and Bobby’s cohabitation, a point about which the film has no specific comment one way or the other, though the relationship itself is positively depicted. And then there are some bits in the film that just plain don’t work, such as a bizarre roadkill funeral scene that’s apparently meant to be quirky but is merely inexplicable.
Though not a perfect film, Pieces of April is about living life under less than perfect circumstances, about seeking the frontier between the world as it is and the world as it ought to be. It’s about having faith in other people, giving one another the benefit of the doubt, putting family first, and living in community. In our fragmented culture of divorce and social alienation, it’s a feel-good parable about taking steps in the right direction.