(director/writer/producer: Jim Sheridan; screenwriter: Naomi and Kirsten Sheridan; cinematographer: Declan Quinn; editor: Naomi Geraghty; music: Gavin Friday and Maurice Seezer; cast: Samantha Morton (Sarah), Paddy Considine (Johnny), Djimon Hounsou (Mateo), Sarah Bolger (Christy), Emma Bolger (Ariel); Runtime: 103; MPAA Rating: PG-13; producer: Arthur Lappin; Fox Searchlight; 2002-Ireland/UK)
“Since the film’s intentions were good, I guess I’m supposed to overlook all the contrivances and naïveté.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
Jim Sheridan (“My Left Foot”/”The Boxer”/”In Honor of the Father”) directs this deeply personal bittersweet semi-autobiographical tale of a family finding its soul in America. He cowrote it with his two daughters and dedicated it to his brother Frankie, who died at the age of ten. The result is a dodgy melodramatic tale that blends a fresh look at the immigrant experience with magical movie realism. It’s often gooey, pulling too much at the heartstrings, but at least it’s well-acted.
The hard-pressed family from Ireland of John (Paddy Considine) and his wife Sarah (Samantha Morton) and their two precocious young daughters, the lively talkative Ariel and the more reserved and alert Christy (Emma & Sarah Bolger, 7 & 11 aged real-life sisters), charm the American immigration officers at the Canadian border to drive in their battered station wagon with all their worldly possessions to Manhattan, where John is seeking employment as an actor and the parents to forget about the recent accidental death of their infant son Frankie.
Upon excitedly crossing the Holland Tunnel, the family is wide-eyed as they are gawking their way through touristy Times Square. Eventually they find a cavernous dilapidated apartment in a graffiti-splashed walk-up building in Hell’s Kitchen inhabited by an assortment of junkies and impoverished folks, as well as an unfriendly looking Haitian painter named Mateo (Djimon Hounsou) who is known by the locals as “the screaming man.” He remains reclusive as he’s secretly dying of AIDS, but the girls befriend him one Halloween on a ‘trick or treat’ adventure and mom invites him to dinner. The scary bogeyman is soon perceived as a black angel, as this transformation is stiffly achieved and never seems to ring true. It seems irresponsible to have their children play unsupervised with him, but that is what we are forced to accept as it plays a pivotal role in the theme.
The dump gets a paint job and is made livable, and pop carts a heavy air-conditioner across the downtown streets and heroically carries it up to the apartment to counter the sweltering heat that is getting the family down. The family adjusts as best they can to their hostile surroundings, as schoolteacher mom can only get a job in the neighborhood ice cream parlor (ironically named Heaven) as a waitress while pop goes for acting auditions and drives a cab at night. The girls in the fall are enrolled in the Catholic school, and the film builds to its themes of the sorrow-afflicted parents haunted by visions of their dead child and facing their poverty in an alien culture as if it were a penance. If that weren’t enough for the bereaved and hard-working parents, there’s a risky pregnancy to deal with and the issue of John no longer believing in God and losing any real emotions–which is given as the reason he can’t get an acting job.
What saves In America from the usual rags-to-riches immigrant story is that it’s loaded with small poignant moments that gives it that disturbing realistic look that makes the immigrant experience come alive for the present situation. When the family has to dig hard for the rent money and are worried about meeting catastrophic hospital expenses, all its sentimentality gets tossed aside and the American Dream is lived out through the experiences of the new type of immigrant generation of the 1980s. The film is optimistically painted like one of Christy’s camcorder video shots, as there are no insightful political or social aims covered but a personal story seen through a child’s eyes to record the American experience. The parents with the help of the fearless girls free themselves of Frankie’s ghost and by the family showing unexpected kindness to a glowering stranger, they are blessed with good fortune. The family answers to the call of an E.T. kind of belief in magic, and that seems all it takes to uplift them. It’s a film that makes denial a virtue and incredulity is made to seem as only a movie convention not to be overly concerned about. Since the film’s intentions were good, I guess I’m supposed to overlook all the contrivances and naïveté.
REVIEWED ON 12/23/2003 GRADE: C +