Sarah (Samantha Morton), Johnny (Paddy Considine) and their two young daughters, Christy (Sarah Bolger) and Ariel (Emma Bolger) are crossing the border from Canada to the US. Dad admonishes the girls, ”Remember, we’re here on holiday.” When the customs official questions the family, Ariel brightly states, “We’re here on holiday…and my da’s out of work!” while Christy wishes upon her dead brother, Frankie’s, soul that they get into the Promised Land. Thus begins a new life for a plucky little family that only wants to live “In America.”
They find a place on Manhattan that is barely a step up from a crack apartment building. But, Ariel could charm Midas out his gold and the family soon establishes a presence in the neighborhood. Johnny, an aspiring actor, spends his time auditioning for any kind of role he can get. He also drives a cab to eke out a living. Sarah gets a job at the ice cream parlor, called Heaven, across the street. Somehow, with a little luck, they get by. They also have a reclusive neighbor who, for reason’s unknown, screams at the top of his lungs.
Time goes by and Halloween arrives, introducing the girls to the American tradition of Trick or Treat. Christy dressed as autumn, and Ariel a little angel, go from door to door in the building (under their father’s secretive watchful eye) shouting out “trick or treat!” but not a soul answers. When they get to the door of the Screaming Man (Djimon Hounsou), knowing he is home, they pound and pound until, angered, he flings it open. The tall, physically imposing black man does not intimidate the fearless youngsters and he is soon charmed by their forthright innocence and intelligence. Soon, they draw him, Mateo, into the family though Johnny is a little bit jealous of the ready friendship that develops between Sarah and the girls’ new buddy. Meanwhile, Sarah gets pregnant but, as she comes to term, they learn that both she and the baby are in danger.
Helmer Jim Sheridan co-wrote this family tale with his daughters, Naomi and Kirsten, and the film is dedicated to the memory of Frankie Sheridan so, presumably, much of the emotion of “In America” is based on the scripters’ own personal loss. The death of the family’s beloved son and brother remains an edgy undercurrent through the film and an issue that Johnny and Sarah must come to grips with. Christy, on the other hand, believes that her lost brother’s spirit has granted her three wishes and, if she uses them correctly, they will mend the family’s grief.
Paddy Considine first came to my attention with his terrific performance as a kind hearted jack-of-all-trades in the woefully under-appreciated 2000 film “Last Resort.” The actor gives full dimension to Johnny as he heads his little family in the challenge of surviving in America. He would like to be hired as an actor but competition and practicality force him to earn a living to make a home for Sarah, Christy and Ariel. Considine gives a full range of emotions from love to humor to jealousy to grief, and more, to Johnny, making you root for the guy.
Samantha Morton has a tough role as Sarah. She is the quiet, stoic one who has kept, to herself, the grief over the loss of her son during a long illness following a fall down the stairs – there is always a question as to blame, if any, for the accident. The actress gives a subdued performance until the end, when the dams of emotion burst.
The sisters who play the sisters, Sarah and Emma Bolger, too, fully develop their charming, wise and innocent characters and are the central spark to “In America.” Kids in films fall into two basic categories – those that can act and have a natural presence on the screen and those that are there to fill a requisite kid space. The Bolger sisters are definitely of the former variety and are both wonderful as Christy and Ariel. Little Emma is particularly notable as a child wise beyond her years. She works particularly well with Djimon Hounsou as that actor plays a dying artist – I think this is set during the AIDS years but it is a little hard to tell – who is deeply tormented but finds comfort in the tiny family that adopts him as one of their own.
Jim Sheridan keeps things moving briskly as the story spans a number of seasons and we get to watch the family grow and adapt, facing any crisis that comes long with as much humor and good-will as can be mustered under tough circumstances. Cinematographer Declan Quinn keeps things tight with frequent close ups of the attractive cast. Costume designer Eimer Ni Mhaoldomhnaigh does a particularly nice job with the girls, especially their Halloween costumes. Production designer Mark Geraghty keeps a feel of Ireland in the set and creates diverse worlds from John and Sarah’s bright and clean apartment to the rundown condition of their building.
“In America” is a warm family tale that has the heart to become an annual holiday viewing. The strong performances by all, the well-structured script and the deft hand of Sheridan make it a pleasure. I give it a B+.
'Be careful what you wish for' the very serious, older-than-her-years Christy (Sarah Bolger) tells us, words of advice from her deceased younger brother Frankie who has endowed his sister with precisely three trips to the wishing well. Through Christy's eyes, we share the first four seasons her Irish immigrant family spends repairing its heartbreak with the help of a dying man "In America."
Producer/writer/director Jim Sheridan ("In the Name of the Father") takes an amalgamation of his own personal experience, aided by his cowriting daughters Naomi and Kirsten, to create an Irish family overcoming personal tragedy while struggling to begin again in New York City's Hell's Kitchen. Delivering the story through the eyes of a child gives the tale a magical sheen, letting light flow into an environment that normally would be seen as dreary and depressing. Sheridan doesn't pull any punches, though, earning the film's sentiments with genuine emotion.
Christy uses her first wish when Canadian border guards begin to ask probing questions. The film's tone is then set as the family drives through the tunnel that will bring them into Manhattan, The Loving Spoonful's "Do You Believe in Magic?" begins to crackle over the radio, engaging the airwaves full blast as the car bursts into the neon-lit city. The only housing that will have them is a gloomy, graffiti-splattered, cavernous old Hell's Kitchen tenement (a beauty of production design, recreated in Ireland by Mark Geraghty "The Count of Monte Cristo") populated with junkies, transvestites and 'the screaming man' who lives behind a door emblazoned with the words 'Keep out.' The viewpoint of parents Johnny (Paddy Considine, "The Last Resort") and Sarah (Samantha Morton, "Morvern Callar"), overcoming the loss of a child which has strained their marriage while holding together a family with meager resources, and their daughters Christy and Ariel (Emma Bolger) are delineated upon entering the apartment. Sarah covers dismay with the hopeful opinion that the place will be fine after they fix it up a bit while Ariel excitedly asks 'Daddy, can we keep the pigeons?' and Christy wonders at the bathtub in the living room.
Each season is marked by a signifying event. Summer brings the family's first experience of inner city humidity. Sarah is undone by the heat and Johnny's superhuman strength and will in dragging an air conditioner across the city and up the stairs is solid proof of his love for her. Fall ('That's what they call it in America, dad') brings Halloween and Mateo (Djimon Hounsou, "Gladiator"), the screaming man whose door Ariel almost literally breaks down. Winter brings both the magic of snow and the hovering of death in a dangerous pregnancy for Sarah and Mateo's medicine stocked fridge. Spring recycles death into a new life and rejuvenation. The past, present and future are contained in Christy's camcorder, which holds the family's memories of their prior life and the missing Frankie even as it records the images which will become their new memories.
Sheridan packs "In America" with symbolism. The ice cream parlor where Sarah gets a job (and begins building community) is called Heaven, a place the little girls can be sent when they need watching. The E.T. doll Ariel begs for at a carny booth that Johnny almost loses the family rent money to obtain (a very tense scene) is a stand-in for Mateo, the alien who becomes family before departing. Ariel is dressed as an angel when she melts Mateo's anger while Christy's Autumn costume is an unwitting comment on his condition. Johnny's a father who needs to come back to life after losing a son while Mateo is a son who has lost his parents as he faces death.
Sheridan's cast is sublime, an ensemble in perfect synch with one another. Morton, in a Sinead O'Connor cut of the mid '80s, has the most difficult role as the mother maintaining optimism to keep her family intact while she struggles with the opposing forces of love and blame she feels toward her husband. Considine, so terrific in the little seen Shooting Gallery release "The Last Resort," will hopefully be more prominent after his soulful work here. Unable to regain joy in his family, Considine struggles on, dredging emotion up from somewhere trying to find work as an actor. Considine and Hounsou nail a confrontational scene that changes their relationship and Considine softens his character thereafter. Hounsou is perfect in the role that could have been the film's most cliched pitfall, mixing dignity with amused warmth. And the Bolger sisters make the film. Sarah has a steady wisdom and strength. Her belief in the power of her own will causes her to snap at dad 'Don't you little girl me - I've been carrying this family on my back for a year now!' and the wonder is, she and Considine pull the scene off without a laugh. Her performance of 'Desperado' at a school pageant bears the melancholy weight of her knowledge. Younger sister Emma is natural effervescence, an unassuming charmer and catcher of hearts.
"In America" is a terrific immigrant saga so well told that its few cliches never feel manipulative. It's got the soul of an Irish poet.
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