In America is the most unexpected and personal triumph yet from Jim Sheridan, who directed the enthralling My Left Foot (1989) and the galvanizing In the Name of the Father (1993). Don't be fooled by the trailer that prepares you for a TV-movie heart-warmer. In America is hilarious, harrowing and genuinely inspirational. Its tale of an Irish family emigrating to New York City in the very recent past could restore Americans' faith in the idea of America - and moviegoers' faith in "humanistic movies" at a time when that label can mean tear-jerking and dull.
Visually sumptuous in a completely original way as well as emotionally enlivening and cathartic, In America transforms grit, grief and dislocation into a recipe for dramatic ambrosia. It begins with an outbreak of charity and an explosion of sorrow-tinged exuberance, as aspiring Irish actor Johnny (Paddy Considine), his wife, Sarah (Samantha Morton), and their daughters, Christy (Sarah Bolger) and Ariel (Emma Bolger), try to make it across the Canadian border, pretending to be on vacation.
Immigration officers are set to give them a hard time until one asks Johnny how many children are in the family. When Johnny answers three, his wife corrects him - "We lost one," Johnny admits, and the officers, touched, grow supportive. Of course, older daughter Christy, all of 10, knows the real reason they get through. She used one of three wishes that her younger brother and secret confidant, Frankie, granted her as he lay dying.
From the opening sequence on, Christy narrates the film, lending it a mixture of apprehension and elation. Sheridan has designed the film around the conceit that Christy is shooting the action with a camcorder. Working with that inventive, acute cinematographer Declan Quinn, the director arrives at a color-saturated, portrait-based style leagues beyond the arbitrary jumpiness of "reality" filmmaking. Even when Christy isn't at the center of the story, Quinn and Sheridan lock onto emotional essentials with the eyes of this smart, observant girl and her appetite for color and astonishment.
When the family pulls into Manhattan to the tune of the Lovin' Spoonful's "Do You Believe in Magic?" the familiar song regains its luster. If you don't believe in magic, you do believe in this clan's longing for it. Here, magic enters Hell's Kitchen - and the drug-plagued building this family calls home - just as it might enter certain scenes in Shakespeare: to clarify and intensify human needs and desires.
All of Sheridan's movies, including his latest, The Boxer (1997), argue for a sacrosanct space in which men and women can preserve their essence as lovers, parents or children. His movies are unsentimental and unusual because they face up to political and economic circumstance with an equally robust and tender fighting spirit. Johnny auditions for acting jobs and becomes a cabbie; his former-schoolteacher wife helps him fix up their new "hole" while working at an ice-cream shop; and the gloriously uninhibited young Ariel and the wise-beyond-school-years Christy insist on reminding them of who they were when they were happier.
Sheridan and his cast are so alive to comic and dramatic complexities that you feel anything can happen at any moment.
In this picture, Sheridan draws us to the notion of America as the land of possibility more than opportunity. In the America of In America, if you're persistent and flexible you can create your own opportunities, or at least heal yourself from Old World scars and become whole. Christy calls their new address "the house of the man who screams." As in any healthy, strapping fable, the ominous man of mystery - in this case an African artist (the amazing Djimon Hounsou) who bellows with pain and rage and labors behind a door marked "KEEP AWAY" - is also the agent of healing.
Gradually, the audience realizes that Johnny and Sarah have never come to terms with the death of their son, Frankie, who fell down a flight of stairs at age 2 and died of a related ailment three years later. Their inability to face the root of their grief, and their warring feelings of blame and responsibility, dull their love for each other and sadden their resilient daughters. You root for these people because Sheridan makes them gutsy and resolutely individual - and willing to go all-out for each other even though they haven't faced what's eating away at their household.
The most realistic thing about In America is how adaptable the characters are. Johnny's acquaintance with a junkie who at different times gives him food stamps and demands money illustrates the craziness and the humanity of live-and-let-live relationships forged by happenstance or proximity. (The bum is named Frank, like Johnny's boy.)
A sequence that starts with Johnny hauling an air conditioner through the streets in the summer heat becomes a mini-urban epic - it puts the actors through a comic-dramatic gauntlet that opens the emotional pores of the audience. Anyone who's gone on a mission when he's hot under the collar can relate to the way in which Johnny's desperation makes him feel bulletproof and traffic-proof. He ends up taking the family to see E.T. It's mostly for the air-cooled theater, but the family connects to the extra-terrestrial's quest to go home because of their own homesickness - and because of their unresolved feelings about Frankie. When Johnny tosses a ball again and again to win an E.T. doll at a carnival, you feel in your marrow his yearning to provide comfort and pleasure, and his wife's and daughters' hope for him to regain his belief in himself.
Sheridan's portraiture and his performers crystallize the supernal in the everyday without softening the family's circumstances or blurring their feelings. When Christy and Ariel arrive at their Catholic-school Halloween party in homemade costumes, the movie's audience sees the girls' charm even if the girls can't - they want the glitzy store-bought costumes everyone else is wearing. The sisters playing sisters are extraordinary. Emma Bolger, as Ariel, has the ability to blurt out spontaneities on cue (there hasn't been anything quite like her since Margaret O'Brien in Meet Me in St. Louis). Sarah Bolger, as Christy, is luminously prescient. She suggests depths that she's barely able to articulate. They come surging up when she sings "Desperado" at a school talent show: It's a scene you never want to end.
Considine and Morton are nonpareil: They conjure a portrait of a marriage at crossroads and put across the fractured feelings that could make their partnership go either way. Morton lines Sarah's semi-weary steadfastness with mercurial passion. It courses across the screen when she makes love to Johnny and realizes that her dead son had her husband's eyes.
Considine must keep some muffled vitality humming when Johnny is bluffing his way through auditions, unable to commit fully to a part, or stoically enduring what for him is a nothing cab job. It's as if he's trying to regain his zest through force of habit. Considine delivers a rarity: a dynamically restrained performance. He lights a mile-long fuse and lets you see it flare and splutter until Johnny declares that he's a ghost - and suddenly, the actor and his character become overpowering.
Johnny makes that admission to the African artist, Mateo, whose impulses and aspirations weave in and out of the movie enigmatically, only to become heartbreakingly clear and whole when he befriends the family. The hybrid time period of In America is partly '90s (hence that camcorder) and mostly early '80s, when Mateo's disease, AIDS, hadn't yet been named. In this fearful era of a deteriorating city and a burgeoning disease, Mateo rises to mythic stature. And Hounsou imbues him with the cosmic magnetism and instincts of a shaman. He's Caliban and Prospero rolled into one - and, of course, the younger daughter is as sprightly as her namesake, Ariel.
As John Boorman did with Where the Heart Is (1990), an underrated New York mingling of King Lear and The Tempest, Sheridan plants legendary and fairy-tale motifs that flower everywhere. The ice-cream parlor where Sarah works, for example, is called Heaven. It's a sign of Sheridan's bardic gift and his great heart that he can find Heaven in Hell's Kitchen and The Tempest in a story that pivots on a ball-toss.
Starring Paddy Considine, Samantha Morton, Sarah Bolger, Emma Bolger, and Djimon Hounsou
Directed by Jim Sheridan
Time 103 minutes
SUN SCORE * * * *