Pieces of April

How many films dedicate themselves to showing the true spirit of Thanksgiving? Usually Christmas gets all the press when it comes to true-spirit-showing, and Thanksgiving is seen merely as a harbinger, a lesser holiday whose arrival indicates the coming of a bigger, better one.

“Pieces of April” is all about Thanksgiving, though, and it’s all about it in a loving, funny and genuinely poignant way. The story is unfolded so carefully and subtly that the sensitivity of it all sneaks up on you: You thought you were watching a low-key comedy about Turkey Day mishaps, but really it was a family drama all along.

April Burns (Katie Holmes) is a young woman, maybe 20 years old, who has ditched her family in Pennsylvania and moved to New York City. She does not seem to have had aspirations to theater or music; rather, she seems only to have wanted to get away from her mother, Joy (Patricia Clarkson), with whom she has never gotten along. She now lives in a dreadful apartment with her boyfriend Bobby (Derek Luke) and has, for reasons she does not explain and perhaps doesn’t even know, invited her family up for Thanksgiving dinner, which she will prepare.

Back at home, we meet the family as they search for Mom, who is already sitting in the car, waiting to go. April’s sister Beth (Alison Pill), the “good one,” doesn’t think April is worthy of such a long drive. Brother Timmy (John Gallagher), a teenager and amateur photographer, is non-committal. Dad, Jim (Oliver Platt), wants the family to be together, particularly because, as he notes to Timmy, this may be their last Thanksgiving together. Joy is dying. Adding to her anguish, she can’t recall any fond memories of her oldest child, the wayward April.

Oh, but I’ve deceived you with all that. This is not a weepy melodrama. This is a comedy meal with dramatic garnish. Joy, named that way for a reason, jokes about her illness, and the film doesn’t want to depress us with thoughts of mortality. It wants us to revel in family togetherness, the way its characters secretly yearn to.

April’s oven stops working, leaving her to find a sympathetic neighbor who will lend her his, which leads to much frantic running from one apartment to another, transporting a partially baked turkey. Boyfriend Bobby, meanwhile, is out taking care of some business; in the film’s only serious mistake, it wastes this character, introducing him just so it can immediately get him out of the way for the duration. His backstory of being a reformed drug dealer is plausible, but irrelevant.

Peter Hedges, who wrote “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?” (the book and the movie) and “About a Boy” (just the movie), makes a strong directorial debut, filming a screenplay he wrote from scratch. He’s an excellent storyteller, refusing to lay out all the cards at the beginning, revealing things to us methodically and ingeniously. So masterful is he in telling the story that we barely realize there IS one until it’s all over and we look at the finished product.

The acting is nearly all realistic and natural, accenting the film’s every-day humor and drama. (Shooting with hand-held digital video cameras adds to the authenticity.) Katie Holmes delivers what may be her best performance yet — though I admit I never saw her in “Dawson’s Creek” — perfectly conveying the mix of rebellious daughter and vulnerable child. Her siblings are good, Oliver Platt is supportive, and Patricia Clarkson continues her streak of winning performances in independent films, acting here with marvelous grace and grit. I also liked the warm performances by Lillias White and Isiah Whitlock Jr. as Evette and Eugene, an African-American couple who take pity on April and teach her how to REALLY cook Thanksgiving dinner.

The only bad casting is Sean Hayes as a mildly helpful neighbor. In a film full of realism, his odd performance is badly out of place.

So what’s it all about? The film reminds us that the first Thanksgiving was in the spirit of friends and strangers coming together to help one another, and Hedges does not belabor the point that April’s Thanksgiving has come to be in much the same way.

There’s also the modern interpretation of Thanksgiving, in which family togetherness is the important thing, regardless of how you feel about them the rest of the year. Your family is, after all, your family. Especially on Thanksgiving. What a pleasant and touching little movie this is.

B+ (1 hr., 20 min.; PG-13, one F-word, some other profanity, one scene of sexuality, some drug use, a nude photograph.)