You don't have to hate your family to love "Pieces of April." Just knowing someone who does is enough.
With dark-comedy panache that David Sedaris might envy, writer/director Peter Hedges takes us through one Thanksgiv-ing in the life of April Burns (Katie Holmes), a stressed-out punkette trying to prepare dinner for her easily unimpressed relations. Living in comparative squalor on New York's Lower East Side, perennial black sheep April has become all but estranged from her tight-sphinctered suburban clan. They haven't even met her latest boyfriend, Bobby (Derek Luke) ... let alone learned that he's not white. Somehow, you get the feeling that's going to matter.
Underwhelmed by the prospect of making the long car trip to April's new neighborhood, the Burnses venture forth, expecting the worst. Along the way, we get to learn their distinctive peccadilloes. Dad Jim (Oliver Platt) is the nicest of the lot, a born conciliator who means well but consistently gets steamrollered by April's controlling younger sister, Beth (Alison Pill). Brother Timmy (John Gallagher Jr.) is a bit too concerned with immortalizing every uncomfortable moment in pictures, while Grandma Dottie (Alice Drummond) is in an advanced stage of senility.
The biggest problem, though, rests with mother Joy (Patricia Clarkson), a hopelessly critical harridan whose hateful carping inspires the most wicked laughs a movie has enjoyed all year. (She announced her disdain for April years earlier, declaring that she found more value in an el cheapo set of salt-and-pepper shakers.) Joy is dealing with some debilitating health issues, but the beauty of Hedges' film is that he doesn't excuse her piss-poor attitude as a human re-sponse to an unfortunate situation. She's a victim and a bitch, and the two aren't always related. (The role is another coup for Clarkson, who appears in just about every film released these days but never seems to fall back on familiar schtick.)
As the Burns party approaches New York, April has to contend with both her own culinary ineptitude and a series of kitchen mishaps that send her scurrying around her apartment building in search of anyone who can help her cobble together a halfway-decent meal. This should be the cue for Hedges (the writer of "What's Eating Gilbert Grape" and "About a Boy") to pile on the "second family" folderol, but the neighbors April encounters are as likely to intensify her pain as alleviate it. Hedges keeps the schmaltz at bay until he can use sentiment as an effective tool instead of a crutch. With taste and restraint, he gradually makes his point that having a family is like living through any holiday: It's seldom better than you anticipated, and it's often worse. But it's never what you expect.