In the reliably indigestible genre of the Thanksgiving-reunion movie, Pieces of April is easily the biggest turkey yet—a gluttonous buffet of Sundance clichés, with an acid-reflux aftertaste of condescension and unexamined racism. The movie reprises mid-’90s Slamdance hit The Daytrippers in broad sitcom strokes: Suburban brood piles into a car and heads for Manhattan, where semi-estranged quasi-goth daughter April (Katie Holmes) is ineptly preparing Thanksgiving dinner in her Lower East Side apartment. Complete with frequent toilet breaks, roadkill burial, and some excruciating intergenerational hip-hop debates (concerning a “Smack Daddy” and a “Puffy Dog”), the trip—meant to comically illustrate claustrophobic family hell—is rather more unbearable than the film intends. The characters are assigned precisely one trait each, and dutifully wear them like placards: bitchy mom (Patricia Clarkson), sad-sack dad (Oliver Platt), priggish sister (Alison Pill), stoner brother (John Gallagher Jr.), senile grandma (Alice Drummond). In a detail to file away for third-act pathos, mom has cancer.
Manipulative and cloying, Pieces of April turns into something altogether creepier, even pathological, whenever first-time filmmaker Peter Hedges (screenwriter of What’s Eating Gilbert Grape and About a Boy) brings up race. As in Thirteen, the white girl’s rebellious accessory is a nonwhite guy; Pieces of April goes further, brandishing race as bait-and-switch instrument. April’s boyfriend, Bobby (Derek Luke), who’s African American, heads out Thanksgiving morning on an unspecified mission—he’s soon on some mean-looking streets, making frantic calls from payphones, and the film goes out of its way to imply a shady transaction. Turns out Bobby needs a jacket from the Salvation Army. (It’s a circular bit of foul play: Hedges smugly upends our expectations about the black character, except it’s the director who artificially implanted said expectations, by orchestrating said black character’s procurement of a secondhand garment like a drug deal.) Bobby does, however, get into a fight with his nemesis Tyrone (actually a white guy—fooled again!) and arrives home bloodied and disheveled, just as April’s family (who’s never met him) is pulling up. This is a film that invites you to see the humor in a carload of white folk recoiling from a black man.
April’s demographically maximized tenement, meanwhile, is a pot of melting stereotypes: In addition to a pissy, prissy fop (Sean Hayes), there’s a tough-love black couple (Lillias White and Isiah Whitlock) who function as our heroine’s very own Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben, and a Chinese family who doesn’t speak a word of English, and to whom she must patiently explain the meaning of Thanksgiving. Given the film’s take on race relations, I’m guessing it’s lost in translation.