In America
 
In America

Ireland/UK, 2003. Rated PG-13. 103 minutes.

Cast: Samantha Morton, Paddy Considine, Djimon Hounsou, Sarah Bolger, Emma Bolger
Writers: Jim Sheridan, Naomi Sheridan, Kirsten Sheridan
Original Music: Gavin Friday, Maurice Seezer
Cinematography: Declan Quinn
Producers: Jim Sheridan, Arthur Lappin
Director: Jim Sheridan

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Grade: B Review by Carlo Cavagna

Director Jim Sheridan's films—My Left Foot, The Field, In the Name of the Father, and The Boxer—have always been set in his native Ireland. However, Sheridan himself left Ireland long before he made those films, moving with his wife and two daughters to New York in order to pursue a career as a stage director. Now he has brought his strange-but-true experiences to the screen in an agreeably uplifting movie that doesn't cheat its way (too much) to its life-affirming conclusion.

In America is a work of fiction closely based on Sheridan's own life. Johnny (Paddy Considine), an aspiring stage actor, Sarah (Samantha Morton), and their two young daughters Christy and Ariel (sisters Sarah and Emma Bolger) are stand-ins for the Sheridans. Johnny and Sarah have survived a son named Frankie, dead from a brain tumor. Sheridan had a brother named Frankie who died of a brain tumor. The family arrives flat broke in the middle of New York's muggy summer, as did the Sheridans. Johnny drags a gigantic air conditioner across New York, and later risks the rent money to win a doll at an amusement part. Sheridan did both these things as well. Sarah becomes pregnant with a baby that threatens to arrive prematurely. The Sheridans had a premature baby. Sheridan even recruited his daughters Naomi and Kirsten to contribute to the screenplay, particularly to the scenes involving Christy and Ariel.

In America is not solely autobiographical, however. Sheridan has changed the time period, and Johnny reflects elements of Sheridan's father as well as Considine's creative contributions. Sheridan claims he even cut out things that actually occurred because he feared they were too unbelievable.

Indeed, some of what Sheridan left in feels contrived, but that is forgivable. In America is told essentially from a child's perspective—that of Christy, the old-soul elder daughter who believes her dead brother has granted her three wishes—so a slightly distorted perspective is only natural, particularly how Sheridan and his daughters have captured it. Christy's imagination infuses the film with a slightly otherworldly, whimsical quality. She sees everything, locating the extraordinary in the film's commonplace life moments.
Paddy Considine and the Bolger sisters
Paddy Considine with the Bolger sisters on Halloween in In America

In America begins as a series of anecdotes, touching on the family's border crossing, their arrival at the "the house of the man who screams" (their tenement), the incident with the air conditioner, and Johnny working to afford Catholic school for the girls. Sheridan takes his time to build characters, including the screaming man, who turns out to be an artist named Mateo (Djimon Hounsou). He doesn't enter the picture until the trick-or-treating girls knock determinedly at his door with Johnny monitoring them suspiciously from the upstairs landing.

For a long time, In America functions as just a pleasantly voyeuristic experience, a glimpse into the lives of immigrants who struggle for what many of us take for granted. The film doesn't hit its dramatic stride until we realize the most serious dangers faced by the family are not external at all, but internal. The horrible neighborhood full of junkies and transvestite prostitutes, the money problems, even Sarah's life-threatening pregnancy—none of these is why the family risks being torn apart. It is at risk because of festering grief over Frankie's death, which Johnny has never put behind him. This, not Sarah's pregnancy, provides the dramatic underpinning of the film's entire third act.

In America could be more subtle with its symbols and metaphors, but again, the childlike perspective makes Sheridan's transgressions forgivable. We hear, for example, the Eagles' "Desperado" ("Well it seems to me some fine things have been laid upon your table/but you always want the ones you can't get"), but the sight of Ariel singing it at a school recital accompanied by a nun on the piano is so disarming that the obviousness of the lyrics doesn't matter.

Mateo is, of course, the most obvious metaphor of all, somehow embodying the passion and magic of life. Some of the most important scenes in the film are intercut with footage of Mateo doing things—knifing one of his paintings to shreds while Johnny and Sarah make love in one instance. In another, Sarah is tested for pregnancy as Mateo cracks an egg. The juxtaposition of Mateo in the hospital at the same time as Sarah and Johnny's newborn baby accounts for one of the most powerful moments in the film.

Sheridan owes a lot to his fine actors, whose lack of movie-star quality is utterly necessary to the film. Morton, nominated for an Academy Award for Minority Report, is excellent in everything she does despite remaining largely unknown in the United States. Considine (24-Hour Party People) has the tougher role, though, and when he finally cracks, you believe it without question, regardless of implausible speeches or corny E.T. motifs. It is thanks to Considine that the ending works so well, while Hounsou (Gladiator) invests with humanity a role that could have become caricature. The girls are effective, too, though Sheridan gives Christy one line ("I've been carrying this family on my back for years!") that no child actor should be asked to pull off.

One last point of clarification: it's not entirely true to say In America is Sheridan's only film not set in Ireland. With the exception of a few exteriors, most of what you see in In America is not in America at all, but in Ireland, where the film was shot. But whether in Ireland or New York, the family's upstream journey through grief and hardship should resonate with most, and makes a fine holiday film for adults.

Review © November 2003 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
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