Director : Jim Sheridan
Screenplay : Jim Sheridan, Naomi Sheridan, Kirsten Sheridan
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2003
Stars : Paddy Considine (Johnny), Samantha Morton (Sarah), Sarah Bolger (Christy), Emma Bolger (Ariel), Djimon Hounsou (Mateo), Ciaran Cronin (Frankie), Juan Hernandez (Papo), Nye Heron (Blind Man), Jason Salkey (Tony), Rene Millan (Steve)
There are so many ways in which Jim Sheridan’s In America could have gone wrong. The intensely personal story of an Irish immigrant family trying to make it in New York City against all odds, it has all the elements of sappy sentimentalism, including a third act that takes place almost entirely inside a hospital and features not just one main character dying, but two others who are, at various points, at risk of death.
Yet, Sheridan manages to maintain the delicate balance between the gritty realities of the story he’s telling and the almost fairy-tale-like mysticism that generates accolades such as “crowd-pleasing.” The story is told through the eyes of a child, which imbues even the harshest moments with a glean of idealism and a fervent belief in miraculous wish fulfillment. No doubt, Sheridan has traveled this route before. His entire career he has dealt with difficult subject matter that, if handled badly, would play like a disease-of-the-week TV movie. Yet, each time he has taken that subject matter and turned it into sharply tuned character pieces, whether it be cerebral palsy in My Left Foot (1989) or wrongful imprisonment in In the Name of the Father (1994).
In America begins with the young Sullivan family illegally crossing the U.S.-Canadian border. In a poetic-realist scene that would have made Marcel Carné proud, they drive through the green-hued Holland Tunnel beneath the ocean and emerge in the bustling, neon-lit spectacle of New York City. This journey is presented as a moment of transformation, when the entire family’s hopes and dreams are fully alive and ready to be fulfilled. They have just dealt with a significant tragedy—the death of a young son named Frankie—that constantly threatens to either tear them apart completely or draw them together in the kind of familial solidarity that is impossible to rupture.
The father, Johnny (Paddy Considine), is a struggling actor who hopes to make a career in the New York theater scene. To support him, his wife, Sarah (Samantha Morton), takes a job waiting tables at an ice cream parlor. They both work hard to make a new life for their two daughter, 11-year-old Christy (Sarah Bolger), who is quiet and reserved and records everything in her life on a camcorder, and 7-year-old Ariel (Emma Bolger), who is boisterous and open to any magic the world has to offer. They move into a dilapidated apartment building that houses mostly junkies and hustlers, and the fact that the film barely registers any sense of danger living in such circumstances is testament to its poetic-realist tone.
The other major character in the film is Mateo (Djimon Hounsou), a hulking, afflicted artist who lives downstairs and is known around the building as “the man who screams.” At first Mateo is presented as a kind of ogre lurking in the shadows, but it is later revealed when Christy and Ariel knock on his door while trick-or-treating that he has a gentle disposition. In fact, he becomes a close friend of the family’s, although there is a point at which severe tensions arise between Johnny and Mateo because Johnny, feeling insecure about his inability to provide for his family in a way that makes him proud, begins to suspect that Mateo has designs on Sarah. Their confrontation scene is one of the film’s most profound because it reveals such great depths about both characters and sets the stage for the growth of their relationship throughout the film.
The film benefits greatly from its uniformly excellent cast. Paddy Considine, who is all but unknown in the U.S., has a perfect everyman quality about him. He plays Johnny as a man of great intentions who nonetheless is sometimes a victim of his flaws, particularly his resentment and inability to get past the death of his son. Samantha Morton (Sweet and Lowdown) hits just the right notes as Sarah, who is clearly the steadfast rock that keeps the family together. Djimon Hounsou (Amistad) has the film’s most showy performance as Mateo, but he keeps the character real, rather than simply filling in the role of sacrificial Christ figure dictated by the screenplay. However, the film’s best performances come from the real-life Bolger sisters, who play Christy and Aerial as recognizably real children, not cute little movie tykes. When Aerial sits at a restaurant and confides to her parents how unhappy she is because she has no one to play with, it is a literally heartbreaking moment with which anyone who has ever felt lonely in a new place can identify.
In America was written by Jim Sheridan and his two daughters, Naomi Sheridan and Kirsten Sheridan. While it is not strictly autobiographical, it captures their deepest feelings about family life and the modern immigrant experience. The screenplay is constructed out of a series of sharply observed scenes that present the characters in their moments of growth. There are scenes that funny and some that are sad. There are moments of great tension, such as when Johnny, intent on winning Aerial a doll in a game of chance at a street carnival, risks losing the family’s entire savings. There are also scenes of instantly relatable human comedy, such as when Johnny lugs a battered old air-conditioning unit up to the apartment to spare his family the intense New York summer humidity only to find that the plug won’t fit.
There are times in which the film slips a little too easily into an obvious desire to fit that “crowd-pleasing” moniker, particularly once the tragedy starts to mount as a way of releasing tortured souls and renewing the lives of those left behind. There is death and disease and poverty all throughout In America, yet the film’s insistently upbeat tone ensures that all obstacles will be overcome and every setback is a chance for growth. Some cynics may view this as the easy way out, yet Sheridan’s assured direction and the fine performances by the entire cast curtail any descent into maudlin sentimentality.
Copyright © 2004 James Kendrick