Pieces of April (2003) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)
Peter Hedges has long wanted to be a film director.
Previously lacking the immediate opportunity to take the helm, he
carved himself an alternate career as a writer. He wrote both the
novel and the screenplay behind "What's Eating Gilbert Grape." He also
wrote or co-wrote the screenplays for "About a Boy" and "Map of the
World". In fact, he's never had a loser. His lowest rated credit at
IMDb is scored a very respectable 6.7.
Not a bad record for a makeshift career, eh? In other words, there has been no doubt that Hedges can write. In my estimation, there is no longer any reason to doubt that he can direct since I saw Pieces of April, his first feature, which made its world premiere at Sundance 2003.
April Burns (Katie Holmes) is a 21 year old bohemian with some big holiday problems. She has invited her straight-laced suburban family for Thanksgiving dinner at her run-down Manhattan tenement, even though she has no idea how to make a traditional turkey dinner. She muddles through the preparations, but then discovers on Thanksgiving morning that she doesn't even have a working oven. The circumstances force April to ask her eccentric neighbors for help in cooking her fifteen pound turkey, and she has to cadge "oven time" here and there, shifting the bird from oven to oven as she improvises the fixin's.
Meanwhile, in parallel time, April's family begins a reluctant journey from suburban Pennsylvania toward New York City's Lower East Side. Dad tries to convince the family that the day will be a beautiful memory for all of them, but April's sardonic mom is, to say the least, incredulous. Sister and brother are squeezed into the back seat with doddering grandma as the Burns family cruises toward Manhattan and a rendezvous with what mom envisions to be a certain disaster. Revealed soon enough is the fact that April's mom is fatally ill, and the potentially catastrophic reunion will probably be the last chance for the antagonistic mother and daughter to reconcile.
Don't be turned off by the cancer thing. It isn't what you are thinking. I hate dread disease movies just as much as most guys, but this script never goes where you think it will, and never uses a sentiment unless it is totally necessary and appropriate to the essential humanity of the moment. The film rings true for anyone who has ever adopted a radically different lifestyle from his or her parents, and for everyone who can recollect suburban family outings with squabbling siblings and conflicted generations. This is really a terrific, tidy little script which kept the world premiere audience laughing, received a long, euphoric "standing O" from the Sundance crowd, and had the audience in tears in the post-screening Q&A when an articulate, charming, and emotional Hedges recollected the true stories which formed the basis of his fictional treatment. April's mother was based in significant ways upon Hedges's mother, and her own battle with cancer. The turkey improvisation story came from a real experience in his single days.
Although shot in 16 days on HD video, with a budget reported to be under $200,000, "April" looks fine on the screen. The director had earlier developed three different deals to make this into a 35mm film, with budgets ranging from $4 million to $7 million, but all three fell through, and a frustrated Hedges finally went the low-budget route to get the film made, picking up some of the tab out of his pocket, and attracting a quality cast and crew with deferred payments based on shares of the film. The DVD look worked out fine. It's not the kind of film that really requires the lavish look of a spectacular. The superior script, solid performances, and economical storyboarding make up for the lack of budget, and the low-budget look actually enhances the portion of the script that takes place in April's apartment.
In the review I filed from Sundance, I wrote: "If anyone ever sees this film, the newly crowned Indie Queen Patricia Clarkson (she's in several films at Sundance 2003) could be an Oscar candidate for the uncanny humanity and wit she brings to the role of the mother." Clarkson did, in fact, receive that nomination! Great job, Ms Clarkson, and to Peter Hedges a "bravissimo."
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