It’s not the greatest thing since sliced bread, and it’s certainly nothing new under the sun — in fact, it’s as old as the hills in its heart of hearts. And yet Jim Sheridan’s In America is so captivating in its characterizations, and in the director’s obvious love of filmmaking, that it’s hard not to be swept away by it — at least while it’s onscreen. Afterwards, you may slightly resent that you were so skillfully manipulated.
But if you’re going to be led along, it’s just as well that it be done by an expert — which Jim Sheridan certainly is. Maybe that’s because his film — co-written with daughters Naomi and Kirsten — is at least semi-autobiographical in its story of an Irish family that gets into the U.S. via Canada in order to give the father (Paddy Considine) a chance to make it as an actor. Sheridan ups the situation a bit by bringing in a further reason for a new start at life: The family is trying to put behind them the death of a third child, Frankie. This isn’t exactly fiction, since Sheridan’s own brother Frankie died when he was a boy. Still, it isn’t an actual part of Sheridan’s own “New York adventure.”
Though In America is dedicated to Frankie Sheridan, and the sentiment is undoubtedly genuine, the addition of a fictional dead son isn’t always in the movie’s favor — after all, it’s not as if the story lacks in emotionalism or sentiment without it! However, complaining too much about this amounts to mere curmudgeonliness when dealing with a movie so obviously sincere.
Sheridan structures his story in essentially two stages. The first section of the film is a series of vignettes depicting the family’s arrival in New York; in some ways, this is the strongest part of the movie. Sheridan brilliantly evokes their first impressions of Manhattan in a series of jumbled shots — partly taken from the video-camera-created “journal” of older daughter Christy (Sarah Bolger) — that rings true for anyone seeing the city for the first time. This segment captures not the exact reality of the place, but the sense of it that one is left with afterwards.
In America then becomes a series of very realistic sketches of the family’s life in the city as they settle into rundown apartment building (with amazingly large rooms) inhabited by other immigrants and junkies, and a mysterious “man who screams” and stays sealed up behind a door with “Keep Away” painted on it in large letters.
Some of the events are perhaps best not looked at with too keen an eye. For example, the generally fine sequence where Johnny buys the family an old air conditioner in the midst of a heatwave is a splendidly evocative treatment of the lengths we’ll go to try to make things “right” — up to the point that the air conditioner won’t work because it has the wrong plug. (And I don’t think putting a regular 110 plug on in place of 220 will have quite the results depicted in the movie).
However, the sequence following it is one of the finest and truest things in the film: The family’s trip to see E.T. is followed by an insane visit to a street fair, where Johnny risks every cent they have to try to win an E.T. doll for their youngest, Ariel (Emma Bolger). Here Sheridan’s mastery as a filmmaker really pulls things together.
It’s on this emotional high point that the film moves into its more deliberately plotted second half, which starts off a bit on the heavy-handed side, with a perhaps-too-arty series of intercut scenes: the girls being fobbed off on a coworker at an ice-cream parlor, Johnny and Sarah (Samantha Morton) conceiving a new child, and “the man who screams” both freaking out and creating a painting. Still, I can’t deny that it’s powerful filmmaking by a director who clearly isn’t afraid to go over the top and use every device in the book to grab and hold his audience.
The tone of the film shifts when the girls boldly make the acquaintance of “the man who screams,” who turns out to be a sad, gentle artist named Mateo (Djimon Hounsou), who is dying from AIDS. Once the ice is broken, he becomes a very central part of the family — not entirely to Johnny’s liking at first. Indeed, Johnny thinks Mateo is after Sarah, and eventually asks Mateo if he is you in love with her. “I am in love with you,” the artist tells him, before going on to add that he’s also in love with the children, and with Sarah, and with “everything that lives.” It’s then that Johnny realizes Mateo is dying, and accepts him as part of their extended family.
This relationship, Mateo’s disintegrating health and the complications of Sarah’s pregnancy form the movie’s more plot-driven last portion. And it works to an almost infuriating degree, because you know full well you’re being brazenly manipulated, though you can’t help but be swept up in the emotions all the same. This is in large part due to the remarkable performances of all concerned, especially the Bolger sisters and the ever-amazing Djimon Hounsou, who ought to be a much bigger star than he is. It also works because of the creativity and precision of Sheridan’s filmmaking. Yet perhaps it succeeds most of all because — all plot contrivances to one side — the emotions are so raw, and so real.
Most of what takes place won’t surprise you, but all of what happens will move you and leave you feeling that you’ve actually come to know and care about these characters and their lives. I’m not at all sure that it’s reasonable to ask more of a movie.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke