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Pieces of April

Grunge her up as much as you please, but Katie Holmes is still as cute as a button. The former "Dawson's Creek" girl next door goes urban and edgy for the 2003 indie dramedy Pieces of April (she has dyed hair and tattoos!) … and she deserves every bit of credit she's received for making all of that just a momentary distraction. Because the real news here is that Holmes turns in a heartfelt, genuine performance as April Burns, the black sheep of a "normal" suburban family who tries to reach out to her cancer-stricken mother, Joy, by offering to cook Thanksgiving dinner. The 80-minute movie (an audience favorite at the 2003 Sundance Film Festival) has a simple plot — kitchen newbie April jumps through hoops trying to make the perfect holiday meal in her ill-equipped Lower East Side walkup, while her parents, siblings, and grandmother make the long drive into Manhattan — which leaves plenty of time for the heart of the story: the emotions. Thanks to a strong cast, which includes Patricia Clarkson as Joy, Oliver Platt as April's dad Jim, Derek Luke as her endearingly sweet boyfriend Bobby, and Alison Pill as her resentful, "perfect" sister Beth, the group's various interactions feel very real. The Oscar-nominated Clarkson, in particular, stands out; with so little time left to her, Joy has decided to hold nothing back: Brittle, cynical, and perpetually on the edge of hysteria (despite her serene facade), she's both motherly and, at times, brutally honest to her family. Terrified that she's setting herself up to be disappointed by April one last time, Joy knows that every choice she makes may be her last. Clarkson uses all of that to create a character who's funny, poignant, and very real. And Holmes does an excellent job of making April both appealing and a bit manipulative and bratty (witness her interactions with a quirky neighbor played by Sean Hayes) — it's not that hard to see how she could have pushed her family to the edge. Shot entirely on digital video, writer/director Peter Hedges' film has a look and feel that match its gritty location and stark emotions. MGM's DVD preserves that feel in both the anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) and the standard full-screen version. The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio showcases Stephin Merritt's affecting score (a French 5.1 track and English, French, and Spanish subtitles are also available); extras include a 15-minute "making-of" featurette, trailers, and a thoughtful, informative commentary by Hedges. Keep-case.
—Betsy Bozdech

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