Is it possible to understand and appreciate what a writer/director was trying to accomplish, concede that he succeeded in his goals, and still find a movie to be a mostly unrewarding experience (which is not to say bad)? 2003’s Pieces of April was writer/director Peter Hedges’s successful attempt to add a modern and dysfunctional twist to the family holiday movie. With such a high-caliber cast (including Katie Holmes in one of the performances of her career and an Oscar-nominated Patricia Clarkson), I’ve always felt that I should enjoy Pieces of April more. But for a film that only runs an hour and twenty minutes, it’s not a good sign that it almost feels like we’re watching this nearly catastrophic Thanksgiving occur in real time, and if Peter Hedges could afford as excellent a cast as he did in this film, he could have probably afforded to shoot it in a format that almost looks worse than your average home movie. Pieces of April isn’t a bad film but its plodding nature, deeply unsympathetic characters, and general cheapness will always keep me from appreciating it as much as many other people I know.

After years as the black sheep of the family, April (Katie Holmes) has put her drug use, trouble making, and self-destruction behind to try and create a real life with her boyfriend Bobby (Antwone Fisher‘s Derek Luke). Despite the fact that she is her family’s pariah, April tries to make amends by throwing Thanksgiving dinner at her low-rent New York apartment. Her mother (The Station Agent’s Patricia Clarkson) has been diagnosed with terminal breast cancer, and it’s highly implied throughout the film that she has less than a year to live. This is April’s last chance to make things right for all of the years that she caused her family misery. So, including her father (Oliver Platt), her little sister (Midnight in Paris‘ Alison Pill), her brother, and her senile grandmother, April has to cook dinner for her whole family knowing that if she screws up, it will only confirm what everyone already believes about her. When it turns out that her oven is on the fritz, April quickly realizes that this is going to be a long Thanksgiving.

Pieces of April is a testament to bitterness, family, the emotional and spiritual toll of holding grudges, and grasping at life when you still can. Many of April’s past actions are barely hinted at (I honestly thought it was mistake when they made it clear because the film’s ambiguity was one of its selling points) and even when they begin to spell things out, it’s clear that April’s life isn’t as much of a mess now. Yet, she caused such havoc as a teenager/young adult that her family can’t get past her previous misdeeds. If there was ever a film that was about the need to let go of what’s come before, forgive people for hurting you in the past (if they’re making an effort to improve themselves), and cherish those that should be closest to us, it’s Pieces of April. And Peter Hedges succeeds in getting that point across. As the family’s car ride to get to April’s apartment proceeds and the bubbling family tensions are finally able to explode, it’s clear just how much this anger is tearing her family apart and the steps they need to take to finally heal.

However, it’s a shame that in April’s family, the only really likeable characters were the otherwise blank slate characters of her father and her brother. I’m glad that Peter Hedges didn’t go down the cheap road of making April’s cancer-stricken mother an overly sympathetic saint, but it’s very clear over the course of the film that she’s sort of a huge bitch (which in turn explains why her youngest daughter is an even bigger bitch) with almost no redeeming characters that I can immediately think of. You can make characters that are deeply flawed but that are interesting enough to hold your attention. Mad Men is full of nothing but complete assholes, but their flaws are unique and interesting or the characters are so intelligent/charismatic/endearing that their flaws become just another facet of their personality. The only truly likeable and developed character in the film is Bobby (April’s boyfriend). The rest are just grating without anything that makes them otherwise engaging.

The low-quality digital camera approach would be fine if it had added anything to the film. You can shoot a movie on cheap cameras and still use interesting shots or somehow heighten the intimacy of the film because of the directness of such a no-frills approach. Oren Moverman’s The Messenger didn’t have a massive budget but the hand-held camera technique brought you painfully close to the heart ache of two soldiers whose job it is to inform parents that their loved ones have died in the service. With a story about a cancer-ridden mother and her rebellious daughter trying to reconcile their relationship, you’d think that Pieces of April would be rife with that sort of intimate and in-your-face cinematographic technique. And there were some good close-ups here and there, but mostly Pieces of April was a terribly conventionally shot film that deserved a richer stylistic treatment.

Despite my complaints about the tepid nature of the film, it manages to pull out a handful of such true and wrenching moments that you can forgive many of its iniquities. They mostly revolve around Patricia Clarkson (who gives the best performance of the film) despite my complaints about her innately unlikeable nature. After smoking some of her son’s weed in a bathroom (and hilariously telling him to roll it tighter next time), she goes on a stoned rant in the car about an R&B artist where she insults her husband’s manhood, yearns for the loss of her sexuality, and reveals layers of subtext about her own narcissism that could explain in the relationship gap between her and her daughter. Similarly, there’s a truly terrible moment where Patricia Clarkson tries to come up with a single good memory around April and realizes that they were all actually the youngest daughter instead.

It’s a testament to Patricia Clarkson’s performance that I’m able to launch as much praise towards Joy as I am vitriolic criticism. Clarkson commits to the role of the heavily critical, slightly hypocritical, bitter bottle of denial that is Joy with an almost frightening intensity. It’s one of those rare performances that can spin from quiet, simmering tension to violent rages to droll comedy. Yet, with every scene, Clarkson managed to continue upstaging her cast-mates and keeping the focus nearly as much on Joy as it was on April. Katie Holmes was excellent as well (though not to Clarkson’s level). Despite the fact that she’s not the ball of perpetual fuck-ups that she used to be, it’s obvious that April still has some issues to work out, and throughout this long day, Holmes takes April through a believable rollercoaster of emotions.

At least the film had the decency to hang a lampshade on the trivial nature of many of the film’s problems. A young, previously rich white girl is having trouble making the turkey for her family’s Thanksgiving dinner. Another character actually calls her out on it (though subverts the trope by sympathizing with April and helping her when April tells her the whole story). I’ve seen the film before, and while I didn’t dislike it with as much vitriol as the first time I watched it, it’s growth in my esteem was minimal. The more I think about certain aspects of the film, the more I can appreciate what Peter Hedges was trying to do, but unlike other films that take a while to hit, the movie rarely made enough of an emotional impact during the actual viewing of the film. Pieces of April still manages to leave me nearly as cold as April’s oven.

Final Score: B-