Family matters

Two movies for the new year find comedy and drama at home

PIECES OF A GRRRL <br>Katie Holmes strikes a punk pose as title character April Burns.

Katie Holmes strikes a punk pose as title character April Burns.

Rated 3.0

April (Katie Holmes) has invited her semi-estranged family to Thanksgiving Dinner at the apartment she shares with her latest boyfriend, Bobby (Derek Luke), whom her folks have never met. Her parents and two younger siblings have April’s whole history of errant behavior to make them wary of the invitation, but Mom (Patricia Clarkson), who is battling cancer, insists they go, and bring Grandma too.

That’s the basic premise of the indie comedy-drama Pieces of April, and while it may sound like an unpromising prospect for a movie, writer-director Peter Hedges and a lively cast make it percolate as a kind of sardonic situation comedy with streaks of dramatic pathos running through it. It’s the standard Thanksgiving from Hell that any normal, not-so-happy family might experience, but April’s desperation to redeem herself makes it more than a grim joke, and the intimations of mortality in mother and grandmother haunt the proceedings and heighten the dramatic stakes.

Holmes is a peevish punkette who is at various times vivacious, neurotic and annoying. Hedges cuts back and forth between her mishap-riddled attempts to prepare the dinner and the family’s much interrupted journey by car to the run-down urban neighborhood in which she lives. The comic complications that accumulate therein are not particularly inspired, but Hedges’ tale maintains momentum via both April, with her half-coherent neediness, and her mom, with her tangled mixture of scathing regrets and fading, defiant hopes.

Clarkson’s chemotherapied matron is the film’s most complex character, though limited by Hedges’ penchant for caricature over characterization. Oliver Platt is quietly effective as April’s kindly but ineffectual father, and Alison Pill and John Gallagher Jr. show flashes of satirical brilliance as April’s pettily conflicted siblings. Sean Hayes is exceedingly arch but still corrosively funny as an upstairs neighbor who both offers and withdraws help for April’s cooking emergencies.

April and company are a little like an inversion of the unreality in many sit-com families. The jokes, that is, have unusually jagged edges, and the pain and anguish are palpable even when the characters are at their best. And even when the story turns to stock tearjerker sentiments like those in the very different Cheaper by the Dozen, there is a bleak sadness in the images of restored family bonds.