Irish writer/director Jim Sheridan’s “In America” is about a family haunted by a tragedy that seeks an unfamiliar environment with which to get lost in. As it so happens, Sheridan and his two daughters (Naomi and Kirsten, the co-writers) had actually moved to New York in real life once, and the movie is based on their experiences, but is by no means completely autobiographical.
Paddy Considine stars as Johnny, who along with his wife Sarah (Samantha Morton) and daughters — 10-year old Christy and 7-year old Ariel (real-life sisters Sarah and Emma Bolger, respectively) — sneaks into America as the film opens. The fifth and absent member of the family is Frankie, who had died of a brain tumor after an accident, thus forcing the family’s sudden relocation. Although passed away, Frankie is still very much around in spirit, and the family bears his memory like an open wound desperately in need of attention.
Having made their way to America, the family meets some unexpected obstacles. Johnny, an actor, can’t get a job and ends up driving a cab. Sarah, a teacher, has to work at an ice cream shop. And the girls go to a private school where their homemade Halloween costumes engender shock and awe. The two precocious girls also meet Mateo (Djimon Hounsou, “Gladiator”), a tortured black artist living downstairs from the family, and who has locked himself away from the world to hide his own pain. Mateo, though fearsome at first, eventually becomes involved in the Irish family’s life, even sharing their grief and allowing them into his own.
“In America” is a terrific film, with a strong cast and an affecting screenplay. The screenwriting credit is shared by Sheridan and his daughters, with many of the sequences involving the girls coming straight out of real life, including but not limited to the girls’ fruitless door-to-door Halloween trick-or-treatin’ expedition. In a lot of ways, the girls are the stars of the movie, with young Emma Bolger taking center stage in every scene she’s in. It’s truly astounding how gifted an actress young Emma is. Despite the fact that big sister Sarah is the one with the filmography, it’s Emma who lights up the screen with her natural charisma and screen presence.
To Sheridan’s credit, nary one scene that takes place within the confines of the city (i.e. beyond the family unit) goes by without more than one race appearing in the background. Sheridan seems to really understand that, more than anything, New York is really one big country made up of people from hundreds of other countries. The film seems to offer an indeterminate time period, and could take place in the present or 20 years ago, depending on the whim of the filmmakers. The one set that really works is the apartment complex the family ends up in, which comes through like another movie character.
The real story, of course, is the family’s struggle to soldier on in the aftermath of Frankie’s death. The emotional tightrope becomes that much more difficult with Sarah pregnant, and Johnny’s acting career going absolutely nowhere. Mateo tries to lend an extra hand, but he has his own problems to deal with. Both Paddy Considine and Samantha Morton does good work as the adults, especially Considine as the repressed father, who still hasn’t truly acknowledged that Frankie is gone. And while the parents try to shoulder the responsibility of keeping the family intact, it’s the children that really do most of the hard work, unbeknownst to their parents.
Which isn’t to say that “In America” is all doom and gloom. Sheridan, who has directed some inspiring films (“My Left Foot”) and some intense dramas (“In the Name of the Father”), directs “In America” with a sense of inspired wonder and at the same time gritty realism. The apartment building the family resides in is full of nuts and junkies, but at the same time the children run free as if they are in a playground, blissfully unaware of the potential dangers around them. The film constantly balances the whimsical innocence of youth with the pragmatic burden of an Immigrant family in a strange city. It does this with great effectiveness, and a scene where the family, at a carnival, risks it all for an E.T. doll makes the point better than any other scene in the entire movie.
“In America” is a great film. Inspiring and gritty and innocent all at the same time. Endlessly charming, terribly heartbreaking, and never dull for a single moment. Almost everything about the film works, even a denouement that comes dangerously close to being too inclined toward “Hollywood-esque” in its pat nature. But seeing as how so much of the film has been flawless up to that suspect moment, one is more than willing to forgive the film its one minor trespass.
Jim Sheridan (director) / Jim Sheridan, Naomi Sheridan, Kirsten Sheridan (screenplay)
CAST: Paddy Considine …. Johnny
Samantha Morton …. Sarah
Sarah Bolger …. Christy
Emma Bolger …. Ariel
Ciaran Cronin …. Frankie
Djimon Hounsou …. Mateo