Pieces of April
dir. Peter Hedges
Opens Fri Oct 24 at the Guild 45th.

Peter Hedges is a tall, lanky man, extremely affable and very passionate about his first writing/directorial effort, Pieces of April. When I talked to him in town recently he was all excitement and fidgeting, giddy about his first publicity tour. As it turns out, he has something to be giddy about, because Pieces of April is a smart, solid comedy.

Starring Katie Holmes, Patricia Clarkson, and Oliver Platt, Pieces of April can be best summed up, oddly, by quoting another film, specifically Hal Hartley's Trust, specifically when the great Martin Donovan declares, "A family's like a gun. If you point it in the wrong direction, you're going to kill somebody." This is the spirit of Pieces of April, which centers on a thoroughly screwed-up clan and a Thanksgiving that gathers them together. Holmes plays April Burns, a punked-out family outcast who lives in a decomposing Lower East Side apartment with her boyfriend, Bobby. In response to feelings she may not fully understand, April invites her family--including her brother and sister, and her near-senile grandmother--to her apartment for turkey dinner. This turns into a bit of a disaster, for just as she is readying the turkey for cooking, her oven dies, forcing April to scramble about her building in search of help from her neighbors. It is also a rather large chore for her family, because not only do her parents and siblings want very little to do with her, but April's mother, Joy (Clarkson), is currently approaching her last legs due to cancer. And yet the family comes anyway, and it is the reasons why they make the trek, as well as the very nature and obligations of family, that Pieces of April explores.

Shot on digital because, Hedges says, "I assumed nobody would give me the money to make it," Pieces of April has a look and feel that I hesitate to label "documentary-like"--gritty due to its transfer to celluloid, mainly handheld, there is a certain spontaneity in the film, almost an improvised feel, that is enhanced by the sharp cast. Clarkson is particularly good (or "scary good," as Hedges calls her), becoming the heart of the film that the rest of the group rotates around.

Hedges pulls off what seems to be a neat trick with the story: Throughout the film's lean running time, I didn't care for April, finding her annoying and selfish, but by the end--and it is in the end that Hedges' talent makes its sharpest appearance--all is forgiven, delivering a feel-good spin that feels not cheap, but somehow earned. How does this happen? Because Hedges, whose previous work includes the screenplay for About a Boy and both the original novel and script for What's Eating Gilbert Grape?, has constructed a film around worthwhile characters. "When I write movies for Hollywood, I'm constantly being told I have to make characters more likable," Hedges says. "And often what 'likable' means is 'make sure they don't offend anyone in any way.' And if you don't offend anyone in any way, you're the person you pass in the mall that no one notices." Ultimately, this is the reason Pieces of April works and is able to survive whatever flaws (such as a few unnecessary twists, and a completely confused--and confusing--secondary character played by Will & Grace's Sean Hayes) it has. Hedges, along with his cast, has given us a family full of tics and annoyances, and somehow--and much as we do with our own families--we still end up embracing them. BRADLEY STEINBACHER

Girls Will Be Girls
dir. Richard Day
Plays Fri-Thurs Oct 24- 30 at the Varsity.

"Nothing like the first puke of the day," beams Evie (Jack Plotnick) as she sashays poolside in the afternoon with a martini in hand. Pitch-perfect camp isn't easy to do. But Girls Will Be Girls, written and directed by Richard Day, makes it look like it is. It's breezy, with a dark undertow and an easy comedic touch. The barbed bitchery is delivered by three drag queens. They aren't playing drag queens, though--they are men playing three women at various stages of the Hollywood food chain. Evie is a walking bucket of gin-soaked chum, a washed-up game show personality with one disaster film far behind her. Her roommate/best friend/verbal punching bag Coco (Clinton Leupp) has been through it all with her, and is in love with the doctor who performed her abortion years ago. New roommate Varla (Jeffery Roberson) is a hungry starlet with secrets of her own and insatiable appetites.

All three are veteran performers. Leupp is the New York drag sensation Coco Peru, and Roberson is Varla Jean Merman, and their verbal swordplay is hilarious. Plotnick's Evie is a fantastic megalomaniac with an acid tongue and no conscience. While surrounded by three over-the-top performers, Ron Mathews, as Evie's son Stevie, manages to turn in a charmingly befuddled and sweet performance. The humor is skewed and crude, in line with John Waters and the brilliant cult sitcom Strangers with Candy. There's booze, pills, insurance fraud, drunk driving, abortion jokes, rape jokes, small-dick jokes, and Evie asking offhandedly, "By the way, did you ever shit out that earring?" Then there's Varla spraying aerosol cheese into her mouth while singing. It's more disgusting than Divine eating shit. And funnier. NATE LIPPENS