Special to The Globe and Mail

Pieces of April

Written and Directed by Peter Hedges
Starring Katie Holmes, Oliver Platt, Patricia Clarkson and Derek Luke
Classification: PG
Rating: *** 1/2

The trouble with sentimental movies is they're usually made by confirmed saps. Oh that more filmmakers didn't observe the pastry chef's fundamental rule -- meringue works best with lemon filling.

Perhaps then we'd get more holiday treats like Pieces of April, a tender family drama made by a skeptic who detects his characters' every grumble and sour glance.

April (Katie Holmes) is a prodigal daughter who invites her estranged family to New York for Thanksgiving -- an offer that fills them with dread. In the car ride in from the suburbs, mom (Patricia Clarkson) is asked for a pleasant memory of her eldest daughter. Heaving a sigh, she can only recall, "the petulance, the shoplifting, the fire in the kitchen." Meanwhile, in the East Village, the angry arsonist attempts to wrestle a disobedient Butterball into the oven. April seems anxious, ready for failure. Her boyfriend gently asks what Thanksgivings were like growing up. She mumbles something about broken salt and pepper shakers marring one holiday.

What happened there, he wonders.

"The hammer I was holding fell on them," April sighs.

Having introduced his film's warring protagonists -- monster mom and her hurricane daughter -- screenwriter/first-time director Peter Hedges ups the comic ante. April can't get her oven to work, so she schleps a trussed turkey about her apartment building, looking for a Good Samaritan with an empty stove. Instead, she meets a variety of New York eccentrics, from Rasputin's double to a chatterbox vegan who refuses to cook "anything with a face on it."

But it's in a crowded station wagon hurtling toward New York that Hedges's elbows-out comedy finds a deeper purpose. April's mother, we soon discover, has cancer. More than anything else, however, Joy Burns is dying of boredom -- she can no longer endure her family's brittle cheerfulness. Casting appearances aside, she barges in on her teenage son taking a marijuana break in a filling station washroom. Then after exhaling a dragon's plume of smoke, she lectures her boy on how to make a proper joint.

From here, the film bounces like a tennis ball between April and Joy. We see the daughter pulling the blanket off her bed to use as a tablecloth, then mom leaning back in a car seat, high and happy for a moment, ruminating on the joys of funk music.

Occasionally, Pieces of April teeters on the edge of becoming My Big Fat American Thanksgiving. Some characters, particularly April's sensitive black boyfriend (Derek Luke) and Barbie-perfect little sister (Alison Pill), are broadly drawn. And Hedges (who wrote About a Boy and What's Eating Gilbert Grape) pulls out all the turkey stuffing at the end, staging a multicultural re-enactment of the pilgrims' first holiday feast.

Still, the film more than earns its heartwarming finale by virtue of the skilled performances of the leads, who expertly play off Hedges's barbed screenplay: Clarkson's slow-evolving traitor was the best thing in Far from Heaven, and she is even more tricky and compelling here, trying to do the right thing, yet still capable of finding pleasure in the discomfort of her family. Surprise, surprise, Holmes is almost as good. Previously, the former TV actress (Dawson's Creek) offered big screen performances that were little more than blinking stop light signals. Smile, frown and pout being her entire gamut of emotions. By contrast, April Burns is a fascinating, wholly mysterious creature: a terminal screwup who hopes to find herself by saving her entire family.

The restraint and wit Hedges and his cast display in putting together Pieces of April pay off in the film's brightly organized, deeply satisfying conclusion. Significantly, neither April nor Joy melt into tears. Which is the way it should be. In the best sentimental movies, only the audience is allowed a good cry.

Pieces of April opens today in Montreal and Vancouver, and Toronto next Friday.

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