In America is a gift. The tale follows an Irish family, still reeling from the loss of their youngest member, who emigrate to New York City. It is a deeply satisfying journey that is heartfelt but never syrupy. There are so many places where this story could have gone wrong, but it doesn’t, and how nice is that? Even the ending is a small marvel, as the film turns to the viewer and comes up with just the right image and words to properly send each of us on our way.
Paddy Considine with real-life sisters Sarah and Emmy Bolger.
The man behind the magic is Jim Sheridan, best know for My Left Foot and In the Name of the Father. He wrote In America with his daughters, Naomi and Kirsten, based in part on their own family story. The production is dedicated to Jim’s brother Frankie, who died in the early ’80s. Shortly after, Sheridan, his wife and the girls moved to NYC, landing in a tenement in Hell’s Kitchen where the penniless family struggled for basics while Sheridan hit one theater after another looking for work. In the film, Johnny (Paddy Considine), Sarah (Samantha Morton) and their daughters Christy (Sarah Bolger) and Ariel (Emma Bolger, Sarah’s real-life sister) have left Ireland still grieving over the passing of 2-year-old Frankie. Arriving in New York via the Canadian border, they settle in a godawful building, all the way at the top floor, high above the permanently broken elevator and daunting staircase. At the street level are the junkies, jittery but cordial, trying to space out their requests for spare change from the residents. At the top are the pigeons that enter the apartment through a smashed skylight and claim it as their own (Ariel is disappointed to learn they can’t keep them as pets). Somewhere in the middle is the man who screams. That man, the family will later learn, the one behind the door with “Keep Away” painted on it in broad strokes, is an artist named Mateo (Djimon Hounsou), given to slashing up his canvasses in bursts of rage. Sarah takes a job at a neighborhood diner/ice cream parlor called Heaven, Johnny goes out on auditions and the girls start school. Though the family has established a routine, all is not well. Frankie haunts them. Ariel, a 7-year-old beam of sunlight, appears to cope best. Ten-year-old Christy, who hides behind her video camera, sees him as a spirit that has given her three wishes, which she uses with great care over the course of the story. Pain and guilt over the fate of her son boils inside Sarah, triggering the occasional delusion during moments of crisis. Johnny, meanwhile, has shut off the Frankie part of himself. His inability to feel the pain leaves him emotionally unconvincing during auditions, and has put a tremendous strain on his relationship with Sarah. He is an utterly devoted husband and father, a man who can haul a used air conditioner down crowded streets and up that miserable staircase by sheer willpower to his sweltering kin. But his fear of becoming vulnerable cripples him. If all the pain and poverty sounds overwhelming, please understand that In America is not a downer. This is a story of the power of family — to nurture, to challenge, to embrace others, to offer comfort while the soul finds a way to heal. The presentation of the story is exceptional. Jim Sheridan has assembled a great group of talents, including Gavin Friday and Maurice Seezer, whose music is letter-perfect for each moment. The cinematography by Declan Quinn manages to realistically present the horrid living conditions while capturing the life and vibrancy that drew the family to the city. His masterful camerawork only draws attention to itself once, when a thunderstorm of epic proportion marks a pivotal occurrence in the lives of the family. As for the cast, it doesn’t get better than this. Paddy Considine (24 Hour Party People) handles the challenge of playing the bottled-up Johnny without ever succumbing to pathos. You leave the theater knowing the man. As Sarah, the remarkable Samantha Morton (Sweet and Lowdown, Minority Report, Morvern Callar) creates a woman whose every emotion is immediately exposed. She offers mesmerizing glimpses of Sarah’s feral side as well. The role of Mateo allows Djimon Hounsou (Amistad, Gladiator) a chance to stretch and his work here is outstanding, as he takes the character closest to cliché and turns his anguish, power and underlying gentleness into something Shakespearean. Finally, sisters Sarah and Emma Bolger are revelations — two of the most natural and charismatic child actors ever to grace a multiplex. As Ariel, little Emma is delicate and determined; the brightest part of the family spirit. Young Sarah is equally impressive as Christy, anchoring the story with her narration to the audience and her character’s quiet maintenance of her sister and parents. She gets one of the most important scenes in the film — a confrontation with Johnny — as well as one of the most charming — a guileless rendition of the song “Desperado” at a school pageant. Some of the plot points of the film, which I have not included here, read like the stuff of a TV movie, but what happens on screen feels absolutely real. In America is Jim Sheridan’s most personal film. It also is one of the best of 2003.