The setup of Peter Hedges' directorial debut sounds like a sitcom's "very special" episode: Outcast daughter living in the big city invites her wacky family to a Thanksgiving dinner she doesn't know how to cook. Then (insert laugh track here) the oven won't work. From that premise, Hedges _ whose screenplays for About a Boy and What's Eating Gilbert Grape are models of odd, deep characterization _ crafts one of the most affecting films of the year.
Katie Holmes, the most gifted of all recent teen-TV refugees, plays April, the skeleton in the Burns family's closet. April has the tinted hair, body piercings and tattoos of a domestic rebel, living in a grungy New York walkup apartment. She groans about hosting the dinner then, in private moments, does little things suggesting she hopes for reconciliation. Her boyfriend Bobby (Derek Luke, Antoine Fisher) is excited to meet April's family, unaware of what a disaster the meeting could be.
Meanwhile, the Burnses are driving to the city with only father Jim (Oliver Platt) showing any desire to do so. Patricia Clarkson (Far from Heaven) plays his wife, Joy _ a sadly ironic name considering her clinically depressed condition and a vague health problem that is stunning when revealed. Daughter Beth (Alison Pill) is the golden child since April ran away but she's worried that big sister may be making a comeback. Son Timmy (John Gallagher Jr.) is a smart aleck providing marijuana therapy for Mom and patience for his dotty grandmother (Alice Drummond).
The first thing Hedges does to take the sheen off this setup is capturing Pieces of April in gritty digital video, creating a documentary feel that makes the jokes and crises more believable. His penchant for brisk, revealing dialogue is intact, and his actors _ especially Holmes and the amazing Clarkson _ develop an extraordinary sense of comfort in their characters' skins, no small feat considering the film's very short running time. Even bit players such as Sean Hayes (Will and Grace) as April's strange neighbor and Lilias White and Isiah Whitlock Jr. as more helpful ones are memorable.
Plot details should remain secrets but Pieces of April navigates troubled family waters with emotional and comedic depth often lacking in previous Thanksgiving films. April's cooking problems introduce her to a diverse collection of people culminating in a finale that had me in tears.
I didn't expect much entering the theater, but left feeling I'd seen on one of my favorites films this year. Certainly one that should be appreciated each November.
Pieces of April
Director: Peter Hedges
Cast: Katie Holmes, Derek Luke, Oliver Platt, Patricia Clarkson
Screenplay: Peter Hedges
Rating: PG-13; language, sexuality, drug content, images of nudity
Running time: 81 min.