In his new movie Jim Sheridan uses his own personal experience to fashion a tale of an Irish family struggling to overcome a past tragedy and survive in New York City. “In America” is in many ways a fairly conventional story of immigrants overcoming obstacles to make it in the U.S., and like such narratives it carries a substantial dose of sentimentality, particularly since the Sullivan family (which goes pretty much unnamed, save for a mention in a school sequence) has two scene-stealing daughters in Christy and Ariel (Sarah and Emma Bolger), a couple of lasses who could charm the pants off the most crusty curmudgeon. (It has to be said that their pronounced brogue adds to the mood, too.) But the film is considerably better than ordinary tearjerkers that run along similar lines (and generally wind up as TV broadcasts). That’s because it has two qualities that seem almost contradictory but, paradoxically, work together to elevate it. On the one hand, it possesses a core of honesty that derives from Sheridan’s life. But on the other Sheridan has been able to invest it–as he’d done in many of his other pictures–with a dollop of magic realism that lifts it from the mawkish to the near-mystical. “In America” might not entirely transcend its roots, but it’s entrancing enough that you’re not likely to notice them overmuch, or be irritated when you do.
The Sullivans make it across the Canadian border with some difficulty, since cute Ariel unwittingly makes a spontaneous remark that piques a guard’s interest. (The time, while not specified, is apparently the early eighties, since E.T. is in vogue. That makes it all the more curious that Christy’s prize possession is a camcorder with which she records the impecunious family’s experiences. Twenty years ago such devices were enormously expensive, as well as substantially bulkier than the user-friendly little item shown here. Presumably Sheridan intentionally embraces the anachronism to emphasize the timelessness of the story.) After a touristy drive through the streets of the city–either a homage to or a spoof of similar moments in countless other movies (or both)–the family searches for digs, which they find in a run-down apartment building in an area populated by colorful derelicts. Dad Johnny (Paddy Considine) takes a job as a cabdriver while going on auditions for acting jobs he never gets; mom Sarah (Samantha Morton), a teacher by training, waitresses in a neon-burnished ice cream parlor where the kids are treated like princesses by her co-workers. Meanwhile the girls react in amazement to the new American surroundings, eventually striking up a friendship with Mateo (Djimon Hounsou), a reclusive, apparently menacing–and terminally ill–artist who lives in a flat beneath theirs.
Given that New York City could be an extraordinarily harsh place, especially in the eighties, and that most immigrant stories record very dark encounters with the locals, “In America” is essentially a very sweet, hopeful tale. (The most dangerous moment comes when Johnny is accosted by a druggie who loiters in his building.) The family’s main difficulty, in fact, is psychological baggage brought with them from Ireland. Johnny and Sarah are torn by the loss of their third child, a boy who’d died of a brain tumor that they fear might have been aggravated, if not caused, by an accident. Sarah’s pregnancy serves as a means of turning toward the future for her, but Johnny–it eventually becomes clear–is locked in grief over his son’s death. (Christy, on the other hand, maintains a mystical connection to her deceased sibling.) Ultimately, the various story threads converge in an ending which teaches that birth and death are both parts of life, which stills holds promise despite unhappiness.
There are problems in all this: Sheridan’s film sometimes comes across as uncomfortably cloying, and the level of manipulation is certainly not low. The denouement has a particularly pat air, with huge medical bills waved away with a suspiciously magic wand–an element of the fairy-tale nature of the close. Nonetheless, Sheridan proves an adept conjurer, a director who can conceal his smoke and mirrors dextrously. He works well with his cast, too. Morton is luminous, and Considine only occasionally overdoes the mixture of good-natured intensity and inner torment. Even Hounsou, who’s stuck with the most contrived role–Mateo is two sizes too odd and in the end too much the sad saint–gets by on his natural dignity. But it’s the Bolger sisters you’re most likely to remember. They might be angelic–is that an aura the camera paints around them?–but they’re endearingly so. (Again, that accent helps.) And while the picture is hardly a technical marvel, it’s competently made.
If you’re in the mood for a feel-good fable about the possibilities of finding acceptance as an immigrant in America, therefore, Sheridan’s lovingly elaborated memory piece will certainly fill the bill. If not, you can always wait around for a few weeks and take in “House of Shadows and Fog” instead. Its view of the immigrant experience is far less uplifting.