After losing their young son to cancer, Johnny (Paddy Considine, "24 Hour Party
People") and Sarah (Samantha Morton, "Minority Report") have uprooted their two
daughters Ariel (7 year-old Emma Bolger) and Christy (11 year-old Sarah Bolger)
from Ireland to take them to New York for a fresh start. Living in a building
inhabited by junkies, the family tries to make the best of their situation;
Sarah takes a job in a malt shop while Johnny pursues his dreams of theatrical
acting. But the pain of their previous loss continually interrupts the joy of
the new land, and threatens to tear the family apart when Sarah becomes pregnant
Based slightly on the real life experiences of writer/director Jim Sheridan's
early time in New York City (the screenplay was written with his two daughters),
"In America" (IMDb listing) explores the journey of an immigrant family trying to sew their
lives together after tragedy, using a complete change in surroundings to do so.
Sheridan has spent his career covering the Irish experience through his
Oscar-nominated films such as "My Left Foot" and "In The Name of the Father."
"In America" is Sheridan's first trip to the states. Because of the personal
attachment to the tale, the New York world is photographed with a loving eye,
even when the action takes place in crack dens and sweaty summer streets.
Sheridan tones down the expected scenes of immigrant growing pains in favor of a
positive look at the family building themselves a new life. While some initial
troubles pass by too effortlessly for Sarah and Johnny, Sheridan has more important things to
explore with their emotional journey than to tax the viewer with another tired
"Welcome to Noo Yawk, pal" sequence.
The plot thickens a bit when the family stumbles upon the apartment of Mateo
(Djimon Hounsou, "Gladiator"), an African-American artist who is slowly
succumbing to AIDS in his isolation. The two sides are initially frosty to each
other, but when Mateo learns of the loss of Johnny and Sarah's baby, he
integrates himself into the family and creates a much-needed warmth in the
dynamic. Mateo represents a spiritual awakening for the family, seen through two
symbolic sequences in which Mateo's suffering intercuts with Johnny and Sarah's
fortunes. Sheridan tiptoes briefly on the cliché of the loveable
African-American caricature, but the Mateo character turns out to be much
more than the token friend. It's through his kindness that Johnny recognizes his
chilly relationship with his two daughters. Hounsou is perfect in the role,
bringing essential inner fire and warmth to Mateo, and keeping the role far away
from forced sentimentality.
As a whole, "In America" straddles that uncomfortable line between idealism and
reality. The pictures comes close to Frank Capra-style whimsy, but keeping the
film from crossing that unbearable line is its beating heart and honesty. "In
America" is a deeply touching, emotional experience that seeks out the truth in
family unit relationships, while still remaining a powerful, riveting drama all
on its own. Johnny and Sarah feel as real as any married couple on screen;
finding themselves out of love, but desiring a return to those days when grief
and frustration didn't so easily tear them apart. Christy and Ariel also perform
as "real" (non-Hollywood) children - endlessly taxing their parents with
questions and forming their own thoughtful opinions on the loss of their
brother. Sarah and Emma Bolger, two real life sisters, are simply miraculous in
the roles. There isn't an artificial, manufactured moment between the two of
them, and they overshadow the rest of the cast with their natural abilities. In
fact, their acting is some of the best I've seen all year.
One showcasing scene in particular has Ariel depressed in a restaurant,
lamenting the fact that E.T. (the film she just watched) returned home, evoking
her own homesick feelings. Slumped over, barely touching her ice cream, she
captures all that earth-shattering guilt, pain, and regret a child her age can
organically feel. The moment is mirrored later in the film when Mateo secretly
promises Emma that he will make sure to say goodbye when he eventually passes on
- or returns to his home planet, as he explains to the wide-eyed little girl.
Great little intimate moments are in abundance in the film, but it all comes
back down to these two acting sisters and the magic they weave.
While Sheridan sometimes makes Johnny and Sarah's troubles disappear with
alarming ease, there is such an ample supply of feeling and passion in the
storytelling that it overshadowed the cynical side of me. "In America" is a
beautiful, alternately heartwarming and heartbreaking film. It's small treat in
the busy holiday season, but one I urge everyone not to miss.
Filmfodder Grade: A