American Dream

In funny, inspired film, hard-luck Irish immigrants find a way to believe in magic

Movie Reviews

December 19, 2003|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

In America is the most unexpected and personal triumph yet from Jim Sheridan, who directed the enthralling My Left Foot (1989) and the galvanizing In the Name of the Father (1993). Don't be fooled by the trailer that prepares you for a TV-movie heart-warmer. In America is hilarious, harrowing and genuinely inspirational. Its tale of an Irish family emigrating to New York City in the very recent past could restore Americans' faith in the idea of America - and moviegoers' faith in "humanistic movies" at a time when that label can mean tear-jerking and dull.

Visually sumptuous in a completely original way as well as emotionally enlivening and cathartic, In America transforms grit, grief and dislocation into a recipe for dramatic ambrosia. It begins with an outbreak of charity and an explosion of sorrow-tinged exuberance, as aspiring Irish actor Johnny (Paddy Considine), his wife, Sarah (Samantha Morton), and their daughters, Christy (Sarah Bolger) and Ariel (Emma Bolger), try to make it across the Canadian border, pretending to be on vacation.

Immigration officers are set to give them a hard time until one asks Johnny how many children are in the family. When Johnny answers three, his wife corrects him - "We lost one," Johnny admits, and the officers, touched, grow supportive. Of course, older daughter Christy, all of 10, knows the real reason they get through. She used one of three wishes that her younger brother and secret confidant, Frankie, granted her as he lay dying.

From the opening sequence on, Christy narrates the film, lending it a mixture of apprehension and elation. Sheridan has designed the film around the conceit that Christy is shooting the action with a camcorder. Working with that inventive, acute cinematographer Declan Quinn, the director arrives at a color-saturated, portrait-based style leagues beyond the arbitrary jumpiness of "reality" filmmaking. Even when Christy isn't at the center of the story, Quinn and Sheridan lock onto emotional essentials with the eyes of this smart, observant girl and her appetite for color and astonishment.

When the family pulls into Manhattan to the tune of the Lovin' Spoonful's "Do You Believe in Magic?" the familiar song regains its luster. If you don't believe in magic, you do believe in this clan's longing for it. Here, magic enters Hell's Kitchen - and the drug-plagued building this family calls home - just as it might enter certain scenes in Shakespeare: to clarify and intensify human needs and desires.

All of Sheridan's movies, including his latest, The Boxer (1997), argue for a sacrosanct space in which men and women can preserve their essence as lovers, parents or children. His movies are unsentimental and unusual because they face up to political and economic circumstance with an equally robust and tender fighting spirit. Johnny auditions for acting jobs and becomes a cabbie; his former-schoolteacher wife helps him fix up their new "hole" while working at an ice-cream shop; and the gloriously uninhibited young Ariel and the wise-beyond-school-years Christy insist on reminding them of who they were when they were happier.

Sheridan and his cast are so alive to comic and dramatic complexities that you feel anything can happen at any moment.

In this picture, Sheridan draws us to the notion of America as the land of possibility more than opportunity. In the America of In America, if you're persistent and flexible you can create your own opportunities, or at least heal yourself from Old World scars and become whole. Christy calls their new address "the house of the man who screams." As in any healthy, strapping fable, the ominous man of mystery - in this case an African artist (the amazing Djimon Hounsou) who bellows with pain and rage and labors behind a door marked "KEEP AWAY" - is also the agent of healing.

Gradually, the audience realizes that Johnny and Sarah have never come to terms with the death of their son, Frankie, who fell down a flight of stairs at age 2 and died of a related ailment three years later. Their inability to face the root of their grief, and their warring feelings of blame and responsibility, dull their love for each other and sadden their resilient daughters. You root for these people because Sheridan makes them gutsy and resolutely individual - and willing to go all-out for each other even though they haven't faced what's eating away at their household.

The most realistic thing about In America is how adaptable the characters are. Johnny's acquaintance with a junkie who at different times gives him food stamps and demands money illustrates the craziness and the humanity of live-and-let-live relationships forged by happenstance or proximity. (The bum is named Frank, like Johnny's boy.)

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