Twentysomething April Burns (Katie Holmes in a beautifully understated performance) is the wild child of a suburban middle-class family. Always at odds with her mother Joy (Patricia Clarkson creating another of her edgy, indelibly etched characters), April has moved to Manhattan and fallen in with a series of losers. She's pierced, tattooed, angry and undirected. Currently, she's living with Bobby (Derek Luke), an African-American man we keep suspecting must be a drug dealer. April's ineffectual dad, Jim (Oliver Platt), loves his older daughter, but his inherent weakness has turned him into an enabler for his wife's dark side. In a clearly dysfunctional family, April's overweight teenage sister Beth (Alison Pill) consciously tries to curry favor with her parents by representing herself as everything April isn't. And April's teenage brother Tim (John Gallagher) takes refuge in photography. He can't be expected to play a role or take sides because he's got a family photograph to shoot.
The apple cart of these already troubled relationships is upset as we approach year-end holidays because Joy has been diagnosed with breast cancer and may not survive another year. In response to this horrible news, April makes a bold bid for reconciliation. She invites her entire family to her tiny walk-up apartment for Thanksgiving dinner. April makes this gesture without eradicating her resentment toward her mother and without false hope that an extended olive branch will result in a lasting truce. It may not even achieve a cease-fire. And unbeknownst to her, her peace-offering invitation, though accepted by her mother, is nonetheless treated with derision. Tim and Beth's biggest Thanksgiving challenge, their mother sneers, will be to hide their disgust for the horrible meal April will inevitably prepare.
What's really smart about this set-up is how Hedges' script achieves a bracing holiday spirit without violating the established flaws of his characters. April doesn't know how to prepare a big family meal, and she doesn't go to extraordinary lengths to remediate her lack of culinary skills. She does, however, buy a cookbook and earnestly attempts to cook a traditional Thanksgiving dinner. The first problem is that she's always used her stove for storage and discovers far too late that it doesn't even work. So no sooner has the holiday turkey been washed and stuffed than April must begin knocking on the doors of her neighbors to beg a kitchen to cook it in.
Meanwhile, cross-cutting from April's series of encounters with her difficult neighbors, we accompany the Burns family on their long ride from suburb to city. As Jim drives and Joy snipes, we realize how sick she is, both physically and spiritually. Constant vomiting suggests that her cancer is advanced and terminal. But rather than curry our sympathy for Joy, Hedges illustrates what a natively ugly person she's always been. For no particular purpose other than the bitter pleasure of meanness, she denigrates her husband and all of her children. Even her purported compliments are delivered with a poisoned pill of self-congratulatory condescension.
The miracle of this film, then, is that Hedges makes something so positive and hopeful out of ingredients so distasteful and unpromising. Nobody is quite the person she or he initially seems. April's decision to reach out to her mother isn't quite heroic, but it is admirable. We never quite learn what Bobby is up to, but we do see that his love for April is both genuine and self-sacrificing. Jim's failings are regrettable, but they are born of love. Beth's vicious sibling rivalry is despicable, but we come to see it as a lonely and desperate strategy for warming a cold parental eye. And Joy's critical nature is a signpost only of a bad personality. She never becomes likable, but ultimately we understand a difference between the way she instinctively acts and the better emotions she seems largely to keep imprisoned in her troubled heart.
In the process of ineptly trying to prepare a meal it's by no means certain her mother will ever eat, April has to call upon the kindness of strangers, an initially hostile African-American couple, a single Anglo man, and an immigrant Asian family with whom she can only communicate in sign language. Two things emerge from these tortured contacts. In one, April tells the story of the first Thanksgiving to people who have never heard it. And in the second, a menagerie of people gather together for a holiday meal that will celebrate our cross-cultural national holiday of gratitude in a spectacular way. I dare you to leave this picture with an empty heart and a dry eye.