For me to fully explain the magic of In America, it might be helpful if I recounted the story of my day. The film is currently playing in only one theater here in Central Pennsylvania, at a new art-house cinema I had never been to before. I was kind of looking forward to checking the place out, so I happily made the 30-mile drive into the center of the city. It turned out that the theater was in a not-so-nice part of town. When I ordered my ticket, they totally refused to accept my critic’s pass. No problem, really – I don’t mind paying for a movie…except that the auditorium had a scant 64 seats and the screen was the size of a postage stamp. (It is quite possible that I have become spoiled by the state-of-the-art multiplex I usually attend.) Then, for some unexplainable reason, the theater decided to start the film a full ten minutes early. So all the people who were arriving on time for the alleged 3:30 matinee were entering the theater while the opening of the film was playing. They griped loudly about how they couldn’t see, and they debated over where to sit, and they blocked my view of the screen as they stumbled around in darkness. It was not their fault, of course; it was the theater’s fault. Still, I was annoyed. In fact, I sat there fuming. This theater sucks, I thought to myself, and I’m never coming back here again!.
That feeling didn’t last long. Within a few more minutes, I was entranced by the story, and when I walked out an hour and forty-five minutes later, all was forgiven.
In America is the story of a family who moves to New York from Ireland. Part of the reason for the move is that father Johnny (Paddy Considine) is an actor looking for more opportunities. But we quickly come to realize that Johnny and wife Sarah (Samantha Morton) are also running away from the death of one of their children, a little boy named Frankie. Their two remaining children – 11 year old Christy (Sarah Bolger) and 6 year old Ariel (Emma Bolger) – seem somewhat bewildered by their new city. To cope, Christy always has a camcorder in her hand to tape important moments.
The family has little money and can only afford a fleabag apartment in a building largely inhabited by junkies. There is no air conditioning, which makes the sweltering summer heat nearly unbearable. When Johnny secures an air conditioner, he gets one with the wrong kind of plug and has to haggle with a local business owner over the price of a $1.99 replacement plug. Later, he takes the family to a carnival and wagers the rent money on a game so that he can win an E.T. doll for Ariel. (This is one of the most heart-wrenching scenes in the film because Johnny wants to do something meaningful for his daughter, no matter the consequences.)
The family also befriends a dying artist named Mateo (Djimon Hounsou) who lives downstairs. Despite having the words “KEEP AWAY” painted in big letters on his front door, the girls go trick or treating there. Mateo plans to spend his final months alone, yet finds himself drawn to the life force this struggling family has. His friendship helps them to heal from the death of Frankie in ways they never could have anticipated. By the end, they are finally ready to embrace life and all its possibilities again as a unit.
The story behind In America goes a long way toward explaining its quality. The film is a semi-autobiographical account of director Jim Sheridan’s arrival in this country. The filmmaker brought his wife and young daughters to the United States back in 1982. (The deceased child is based on Sheridan’s brother.) Many of the incidents portrayed in the movie really happened. In fact, Sheridan wrote the screenplay with his now-grown daughters Naomi and Kirsten. In America therefore has a very personal touch. It is this heartfelt quality that comes off the screen and affects you. The best movies are always the ones that were made from the heart. Sheridan has also made such acclaimed pictures as In the Name of the Father, My Left Foot, and The Boxer. Those are fine movies, but also very heavy ones. With In America, he has made his most accessible – and powerful – film to date simply by drawing from his own experience.
The actors really seem to be keyed into Sheridan’s vision. Every single performance is outstanding, from the dazed grief of Samantha Morton’s Sarah, to the insistent protectiveness of Paddy Considine’s Johnny, to the tragic nobility of Djimon Hounsou’s Mateo. Then there are the Bolger sisters, who give remarkably natural performances as the little girls. Despite their age, both young actresses are totally convincing displaying all the confusion, sadness, and hope that Christy and Ariel struggle with. As far as child performances go, these rank right up there with Haley Joel Osment in The Sixth Sense and (appropriately) Henry Thomas in E.T.
Many themes are covered here: guilt over the loss of a child, the struggle of immigrants to make it in a new country, the importance of family cohesion. Yet there are many moments of levity and laughter as well – some joy to temper the pain. Everything about this story feels real; it feels like life. In America is a movie you can get lost in. From its earliest moments, it gets you involved, and everything else melts away. The word that keeps coming to mind when I think about the film is “beautiful.” It’s a beautiful story, beautifully written and directed, beautifully acted, and beautifully realized. It is not only one of the best pictures of the year, but also one of my favorite pictures of the year.
Do yourself a favor and go see it.
( out of four)
In America is rated PG-13 for some sexuality, drug references, brief violence and language. The running time is 1 hour and 43 minutes.
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