In America
review by Elias Savada, 5 December 2003

A deeply personal, wishful film from Dublin-born and -based director-writer Jim Sheridan (My Left Foot, In the Name of the Father), In America is easily one of the year's best features. Anyone thinking otherwise has the heart of a hardened cynic. Shaping the tragedy of a dead sibling (Sheridan lost his 10-year-old brother Frankie three dozen years ago) with the help of his two daughters, Naomi and Kirsten, Sheridan has crafted a poet's vision of himself as the determined breadwinner for an young immigrant family struggling with emotional ghosts. Their financial burdens play second fiddle to the finger-pointing tragedy that has decimated the family's wellbeing. In what appears to be an unusual writing process, each Sheridan sister submitted separate scripts with distinctly different p.o.v.'s; their father selecting scenes from each.

Taxi driver and struggling actor Johnny Sullivan fits actor Paddy Considine like a glove. Actually, everyone cast in this film shows the same smooth confidence that befits the sentimentally sound screenplay. I still recall Considine's breakthrough role as an impressively creditable bully in Shane Meadows' A Room for Romeo Brass, followed by outings in Polish director Pawel Pawlikowski's Last Resort (as a bingo caller who salvages the downtrodden life of a young Russian mother and her potentially juvenile delinquent son), and 24 Hour Party People, a small hit on last year's art house circuit. He has matured nicely professionally, considering he never intended to act for a living. He embraces Sheridan's careworn Irish everyman, cradled by a compassionate wife (Samantha Morton), and supported by two small children, the angelically innocent Ariel and the eternally perceptive Christy, a 10-year-old who narrates this tale of hope lost and regained. Morton, adorned with the same buzz cut she wore in Steven Spielberg's Minority Report shares top billing in her smaller, but magnificently graceful role, one bordering on sainthood. Sisters Emma and Sarah Bolger make a stunning contribution, particularly the latter as the older sibling who is constantly videotaping the family's expressive comings and goings, but more often playing doctor, closing the psychological wounds that threaten the Sullivan's fragile mental health.

The family, having arrived via Canada to a glowing, pulsating New York, alight in an rundown apartment building blighted with drug addicts and transvestites, and a lift that hasn't worked forever. Persistently they barrel through their fears, grief, and meager funds, refusing to bow to those disappointments that would send many American shrieking away in the desperation to darker climates. But the Sulivan unit is strong beyond what circumstance has given tem. They appear comforted by the city's omnipotent heart, constantly hovering above the Manhattan skyline in the shape of a slender, smiling moon. Here is the story of Lady Liberty welcoming huddled masses to the land of dreams.

And screams. Within their tenement is a troubled soul who has cut himself off from the world around him. Mateo (Amistad's Djimon Hounsou) is the portrait of the black Nigerian artist as a angry man, whose rage melts when the two Sullivan girls, on their first Halloween outing, nobly pound him out of his reclusive isolation and mystically connect his life spirit with theirs.

The film aches to be anytime. The family does take in an air-conditioned viewing of E.T. to escape one of those trademark New York summer days, thus placing it squarely in 1982 (the year Sheridan first journeyed to the Big Apple for his only formal film training at NYU). Beyond this carbon dating, the film is timeless, spiritual standard time. The Spielberg masterpiece makes another appearance on a family outing to Coney Island, where the family gambles their rent money in a nail-biting carnie game that escalates badly as Johnny attempts to win a $30 E.T. doll for his daughter.

There are heartrending moments sprinkled throughout the film, which cinematographer Declan Quinn has encased in a lovely glow. Perfectly luminous, not garish. He gets us sympathetically close to the family—so familiar with the close-ups and medium shots that we tend share their emotions, see their demons, and giggle with them as they take a cool shower on a hot day or carve angels in the snow.

It's not all butterflies and roses; there's a distrustful store owner who won't spot Johnny two bits for an electrical plug; a self-righteous, coke-sniffing, rapping white stockbroker who Johnny mercifully boots out of his cab; and a near-death experience with a local junkie. Ultimately, In America supports the old adage, "Home Sweet Home." It's more. A painfully poignant and sensitive study of the human spirit and its nobler sider. The film bursts with affection, particularly the AIDS-infected, soul-liberated Mateo, who confesses powerfully to a momentarily selfish Johnny that he is in love with Johnny's family, his unborn child, his anger, anything that lives. Sheridan balances this anger with touches of magic and whimsy, of snowball fights, and human benevolence. Revel in it and put aside for 100 minutes the terror that grips our daily world. Pray that we all practice random acts of kindness and be as fortunate as the Sullivans. Let the film stay with you in those lost moments in your life. There's plenty of infectious hope In America to spread around. It's worth sharing.

Directed by:
Jim Sheridan

Samantha Morton
Paddy Considiine
Djimon Hounsou
Sarah Bolger
Emma Bolger

Written by:
Jim Sheridan
Naomi Sheridan
Kirsten Sheridan

R - Restricted.
Under 17 requires
parent or adult






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