Now a dozen years old, “Pieces of April” (2003) is one of the most endearing entries in the dysfunctional family Thanksgiving subgenre. Writer-director Peter Hedges specializes in hopeful stories about broken people, from the beloved “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?” to the woeful misfire “The Odd Life of Timothy Green.” “Pieces of April” is about the danger, and the necessity, of hoping against hope in a troubled situation, of taking the risk of trying to make it work when there is ample reason to expect only failure.
A Thanksgiving family movie, dysfunctional or otherwise, needs a good ensemble cast, and Hedges has a memorable one. Patricia Clarkson is exquisite as the brittle, ironically named Joy, who tries to submerge her pain and disappointment in a sea of cynicism, dark humor, and morbidity. Oliver Platt balances solicitude with wary hopefulness as her levelheaded husband Jim, doing his best to make the center hold by sheer force of will. Their last name is Burns, and every member of the family has been burned at some point or other.
Katie Holmes is both jaded and naive as the titular April, the pink-haired black sheep of her white-bread suburban family, now living in an apartment in a dodgy neighborhood on Manhattan’s lower East Side. Derek Luke (“Captain America: The First Avenger”) plays her supportive, stand-up boyfriend Bobby, whom April’s family have not yet met, and don’t know is black. (All Jim knows about Bobby is that he reportedly reminds April of himself. “This guy sounds promising,” Jim tries to reassure Joy early on.)
Rounding out the Burns family are perfect younger daughter Beth (Alison Pill, a decade before she played the equally perfect teacher in “Snowpiercer”), who resents the oxygen consumed by the burning drama of April’s life; detached Timmy (John Gallagher, Jr., a decade before he played Mason in “Short Term 12”), whose obsession with photography embodies the movie’s themes of memory and transience; and the aptly named Grandma Dottie (Alice Drummond, elderly Sister Veronica in “Doubt”), who, as Roger Ebert put it, “is in that stage of movie-induced Alzheimer’s that allows her to provide perfectly timed zingers when necessary.”
Whatever possessed April — clearly the furthest thing from a domestic goddess — to offer to prepare Thanksgiving dinner for her family in New York? Partly, no doubt, never having attempted anything of the sort, she has no idea what she’s in for. Also, of course, she has something to prove, perhaps to atone for.
Whatever possessed her family to stake their Thanksgiving plans on April’s ability to do so? In a word, Jim feels bound to give April her chance to prove and to atone, even if he has a sinking feeling her odds aren’t great.
“I’m gonna say this once,” Jim tells Joy firmly. “We’re gonna have a very nice time.”
“You don’t actually believe that,” Joy protests, and Jim demurs, still hopefully but more frankly, “It’s possible, I think, yes.”
Meanwhile, on April’s side, disaster strikes immediately, and it is not subtle: Hours before her family is due to arrive, the oven won’t start. It’s one thing to knock on a neighbor’s door and ask to borrow an egg; it’s quite another to ask to use someone’s oven for five hours on Thanksgiving, but April has no choice.
April’s quest to find a suitable oven in her apartment building becomes an increasingly complicated journey involving a diverse assortment of quirky neighbors, the most genially helpful of which are a laid-back couple played by Lillias White and Isiah Whitlock Jr. Her plight, the movie points out (also not subtly), is not unlike that of the Pilgrims, relying on the hospitality of the Native Americans. It takes a village to make Thanksgiving dinner.
Meanwhile, the Burns family make their pilgrimage in the family station wagon to a destination that is both known and uncertain. Joy’s demeanor is fatalistically resolute; before the trip begins, she briefly goes missing, and her family discovers her in the last place they expected, like a condemned prisoner awaiting execution.
One of the movie’s few drawbacks is a dubious subplot misleadingly suggesting that Bobby is less stellar than April has led her father to believe. One of April’s previous boyfriends was a drug dealer, and Hedges structures Bobby’s Thanksgiving Day journey to falsely imply that he may be one, too. Later, Bobby inadvertently makes the worst possible first impression on April’s family, seeming confirming all their racially-tinged suburban middle-class fears of urban black men, thereby repeating the trick Hedges tries to play on the audience.
Tragedy hangs over “Pieces of April”: the tragedy of past heartache, present alienation, and looming loss. One of the film’s most wrenching moments comes when Joy is trying to come up with one happy memory — just one — of her troubled eldest daughter, and the moment slips through her fingers in the most jarringly pathetic way possible. So much hangs on this particular Thanksgiving, but what are the odds?
The climactic turning point is so quiet I missed it the first time. I have not read one review that calls it out. It takes place in a diner restroom, and in a way it’s over before it begins, but it changes everything. It hardly even matters that Hedges follows it up with another contrived fake-out; the movie has earned our indulgence. We are rooting for April and her family, and that’s what matters.
The denouement wrecks me every time I watch it. That is, I confess, no great feat; I cry easily at movies — seldom for sorrow, but often for joy. Tragedy is less likely to move me to tears than hope, goodness, or reconciliation.
We are all affected by relationships like that of April and her mother: relationships that have caused so much grief and anger and hurt that they seem a lost cause. So many times we’ve reached out, and had our hand smacked away for our trouble, or worse. Best not to try again, for sheer self-preservation.
“Pieces of April” will make you want to try again.