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
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
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.
R - Restricted.
Under 17 requires
parent or adult