Dir: Peter Hedges. US. 2003. 80 mins.
Sweet, neat and oh-so-slight, Pieces Of April marks another triumph for InDigEnt, the digital film-making initiative behind Personal Velocity, Tadpole, Tape and Chelsea Walls. Budgeted at some $150,000, the film looks good and hits all the same buttons you would expect from a studio-produced family comedy. That's why United Artists shelled out some $3.5m for domestic rights to the picture - and a generous slice of the backend for international rights - at the Sundance Film Festival last week where the film was far and away the most sought after property.
Back in reality, away from the giddiness of Sundance, Pieces Of April still holds up as a bittersweet comedy, and with a cast led by famous TV faces Katie Holmes, Oliver Platt and Sean Hayes, its domestic prospects are stronger than Tadpole which famously flopped last year ($5m acquisition price, $2.8m gross). Internationally, however, where Holmes means little, where Thanksgiving is an alien concept and where small US independents tend to fall between the cracks, it isn't unusual enough to stand out in a marketing sense or brilliant enough to be championed by critics.
The film is the directorial debut of screenwriter Peter Hedges whose deft writing talents have given us witty and warm scripts for What's Eating Gilbert Grape' and About A Boy. Hedges had originally placed the film at UA with a budget of about $6m but, at the 11th hour, UA put it into turnaround. Four weeks later, he was shooting with most of the key elements in place on a fraction of that budget (with the actors settling for profit participation). The irony was not lost on all involved that UA, albeit under a different regime, bought back the completed film.
It's a salutary lesson that Hedges could craft a film so finely on such limited resources. If Julia Roberts were in it, the film wouldn't cost less than $50m. But, as InDigEnt has proved repeatedly, if the writing is good, good actors will fall over themselves to be cast for very little money.
Holmes is a surprise as April. Downplaying her looks and cutesy persona, she is convincing as an awkward 21 year-old living with her black boyfriend (Luke) in a run-down tenement building on the Lower East Side of New York City. Drug problems have rendered her teenage years troubled and she is estranged from her family who live a conventional life in suburbia.
But her mother (Clarkson), with whom her relationship is particularly strained, has been diagnosed with cancer and by way of an olive branch, April has invited the family for Thanksgiving Dinner. The film tracks April's hapless attempts to prepare turkey dinner after she discovers that her cooker has broken and she enlists the help of neighbours - an African American couple, a Chinese family, the weirdo upstairs (Hayes). Meanwhile her parents (Clarkson & Platt), siblings (Pill & Gallagher Jr) and grandmother (Drummond) have a fraught car journey down to the city.
There are numerous pleasures to be had in the tight 80-minute journey - including spot-on performances from Clarkson, Pill and Luke - and there was hardly a dry eye in the house at the Sundance screenings of the film when mother and daughter are finally reunited. But it is the syrupy conclusion - loose ends tied up neatly, happy family celebrating their togetherness alongside African Americans and Chinese - that finally rings untrue. No wonder distributors were falling over themselves to buy it: the film finally falls into the same twee traps as a studio-manufactured weepie.
Prod cos: IFC Productions, InDigEnt, Kalkasa Productions.
Worldwide dist: United Artists.
Exec prods: Jonathan Sehring, Caroline Kaplan, John Sloss.
Prods: John Lyons, Gary Winick, Alexis Alexanian.
Scr: Peter Hedges.
DoP: Tami Reiker.
Prod des: Rick Butler.
Ed: Mark Livolsi.
Mus: Stephin Merritt.
Main cast: Katie Holmes, Patricia Clarkson, Oliver Platt, Derek Luke, Alison Pill, John Gallagher Jr, Alice Drummond, Sean Hayes, SisQo