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Pieces of April, showing at the Denver International Film Festival, is getting good buzz. Peter Hedges’ directorial debut deserves it — mostly. Lifting it above its shot-on-video cinematography and one-note ending are great performances of well observed characters.

Black Sheep

Holmes reveals the girl behind the black sheep
Holmes reveals the girl behind the black sheep

April (Katie Holmes) is the black sheep in her family. She probably spent her entire childhood in rebellion, and it often got her into trouble. By her very nature April is somewhat doomed to be a black sheep. She has a short temper and, even now, doesn’t always treat her neighbors well.

Tattooed, pierced, living on her own, and recently separated from her drug-dealing boyfriend, she tries to bridge the gap between her and her family by inviting them for a traditional Thanksgiving dinner. When it comes to cooking, she knows the concept and the ingredients, but the preparation seems to be a mystery. She doesn’t even know the difference between a stove and an oven.

Her new boyfriend Bobby (Derek Luke) helps stuff the turkey, then heads out into town to get ready for the big day.

Over the River, Through the Woods

Meanwhile, April’s two siblings, her parents, and her grandmother pile into a station wagon and make the drive into New York. April’s sister Beth (Alison Pill) tries to sabotage the day with her anti-April attitude, while her mother Joy (Patricia Clarkson, giving the best performance of the movie), fighting breast cancer and nausea, makes jokes about how bad April’s cooking is likely to be.

Jim (Oliver Platt) is the patriarch of this unhappy family. His job is to counterbalance the cynicism of the women in the family with an optimism that even he admits is hopeful.

Hedges cuts between the approaching station wagon and April’s mad attempts to find a stove, or an oven, or something to cook her turkey in, giving the movie a livelier pace than most family reunion comedy/dramas. Two keenly felt emotional twists at the end wrap up the movie, rather than letting it spill out, unfinished, into the theater.

Show Some Backbone

Hedges’ characters are the movie’s backbone. The title character is so well realized that I recognized her from my own extended family. Holmes portrays the bridge-building, misunderstood daughter, but she also layers in the petulant brat who earned the position as black sheep in the first place. Her sister Beth is someone I also recognize: the sibling whose proudest achievement is simply not being the April. Veteran actors Clarkson and Platt have a hard time standing out from the crowd, although both manage to hold their own.

But the backbone is weakened by a couple of factors. Most noticeable is that Pieces of April is shot on videotape and transferred to film. Director of Photography Tami Reiker adapts by using closeups and handheld shots, which video does well, but the foggy, blurry look disappoints.

Also, as good as the ending feels, it’s too abrupt. It’s like a punchline after a very long joke. The closure we feel at the ending is made sweeter by being delayed, but it also makes the buildup somewhat irrelevant.

Pieces of April is probably worth a look, especially as a video rental. If it doesn’t catch on, then so be it. Everyone involved showed enough skill and talent to earn work on bigger and better projects in the future.