Peter Hedges' background as playwright, novelist and screenwriter ("What's Eating Gilbert Grape," "About a Boy") serves him well in his directing bow, "Pieces of April," a Thanksgiving family reunion comedy that sparkles with acerbic wit, original characters and genuine heart.

Peter Hedges’ background as playwright, novelist and screenwriter (“What’s Eating Gilbert Grape,” “About a Boy”) serves him well in his directing bow, “Pieces of April,” a Thanksgiving family reunion comedy that sparkles with acerbic wit, original characters and genuine heart. Fostered by IFC’s digital arm InDigEnt, the film suffers from a rather flat visual quality as well as from unevenness in energy levels. But its fine cast, infectious humor and a sweet emotional payoff combining a strong sense of family with a broader spirit of community should make this small but disarming feature a moderately commercial venture.

Setting up the action and sketching the characters with economy and precision, Hedges opens on family black sheep April Burns (Katie Holmes) and her African-American boyfriend Bobby (Derek Luke) in their seedy Manhattan walk-up, chaotically preparing for Thanksgiving dinner. Meanwhile, at their upstate N.Y. suburban home, Burns family members steel themselves to share in this meal, anticipating disaster from the petulant April.

April’s mother Joy (Patricia Clarkson) is in the terminal stages of cancer and is stoically dreading the encounter with her errant daughter. The film’s liveliest humor is found in the barbed observations of this difficult, angry woman — deliciously delivered in Clarkson’s lovely performance — and in her wicked delight in making fun of her cosseting family’s solemnity and concern for her condition.

Joy’s well-intentioned husband (Oliver Platt) seems alone in his willingness to give April a second chance, while self-righteous Beth (Alison Pill) masks the resentment she feels for her older sister with over-protectiveness toward her mother. Weed-smoking photographer brother Timmy (John Gallagher Jr.) is along for the lark, while grandma (Alice Drummond) is sliding into senility.

The family journeys toward New York City, making stops for junk food and to bury road kill along the way, as April confronts her limited cooking skills and an oven previously used only for storage. She turns — in some of the film’s funniest scenes — to a good-humored black couple downstairs (Lillias White, Isiah Whitlock), who frown at her white-girl helplessness.

When the couple’s own dinner preparations take precedence, April begins a door-knocking campaign in a quest to find another working oven. This leads her to the deluxe new stove of Wayne (Sean Hayes). But her lack of apparent gratitude results in Wayne going AWOL, taking April’s half-cooked turkey hostage.

While there’s nothing wrong with “Will & Grace” star Hayes’ impish performance, the forced eccentricity of the character and the sitcommy feel to this strand contribute to a dip in the proceedings after the buoyant opening. Also at fault are the too-frequent digressions to track the activity of boyfriend Bobby — sent off to give April run of the kitchen — which weakens the key dynamic of the two gradually converging poles of the Burns family’s road trip and April’s neighbor-hopping escapades.

Despite this, however, Hedges skillfully pulls all the elements together in a satisfying final act laced with further setbacks and unexpectedly harmonious solutions that gracefully sidestep scenes of saccharine reconciliation.

Balancing her character’s edges by presenting an indifferent exterior while quietly reaching out to repair the damage, Holmes gives one of her best film perfs. Platt, Pill, Gallagher Jr. and Drummond all score with humorously drawn characters, bouncing off each other in appealing ways in scenes that mostly take place in a moving car.

But while she never dominates the ensemble, it’s the extraordinary Clarkson who anchors the comedy, revealing the vulnerability and sorrow under Joy’s dry humor in measured doses that make the conclusion moving without pushing the sentimental envelope.

The gentle, mellow contributions of New York singer-songwriter Stephin Merritt add significantly to the film’s affectionate mood.

The modest production’s only technical shortcoming is its lifeless visual patina.

Pieces of April

Production

An InDigEnt, IFC Prods. presentation of an InDigEnt production in association with Kalkaska Prods. Produced by John Lyons, Gary Winick, Alexis Alexanian. Executive producers, Jonathan Sehring, Caroline Kaplan, John Sloss. Co-producers, Lucy Barzun, Lucille Masone Smith. Producer for IFC, Holly Becker. Directed, written by Peter Hedges.

Crew

Camera (color), Tami Reiker; editor, Mark Livolsi; music, Stephin Merritt; production designer, Rick Butler; costume designer, Laura Bauer; sound (Dolby), Aaron Rudelson; associate producer, Dianne Dreyer; assistant director, Vebe Borge; casting, Berney Telsey, David Vaccari, Will Cantler. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (Dramatic Competition), Jan. 19, 2003. Running time: 81 MIN.

With

April Burns - Katie Holmes Joy Burns - Patricia Clarkson Jim Burns - Oliver Platt Bobby - Derek Luke Beth Burns - Alison Pill Timmy Burns - John Gallagher Jr. Grandma Dottie - Alice Drummond Wayne - Sean Hayes Latrell - SisQo Evette - Lillias White Eugene - Isiah Whitlock
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