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 again.
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” 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, and 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 bigger fish to fry 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 cliche of the loveable African-American caricature, but the Mateo character turns out to be so 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 not to miss.Rating: A