Directed by Jim Sheridan. Starring Samantha Morton, Paddy Considine, Sarah Bolger, Emma Bolger, Djimon Hounsou. (2003, PG-13, 103 min.)
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Dec. 19, 2003
New York’s Hell’s Kitchen is not the kind of place people generally go when seeking spiritual renewal or even something as simple as a more positive outlook on life. Amid the tenements and crime and poverty and junkies, people who wander into the neighborhood’s clutches from elsewhere are not guaranteed safe egress; in fact, it’s more likely they’ll be sucked into the district’s downward spiral than elevated by its street rot and social decay. Yet this is where the Irish immigrant family of Johnny (Considine), Sarah (Morton), and their two young daughters, Christy (Sarah Bolger) and Ariel (Emma Bolger), wind up after slipping into America through Canada. This family has come to America in the Eighties for a new start in life, a life unburdened by the weight of the past – the inescapable memory of Frankie, the family’s young child and brother who died of a brain tumor that developed following a fall down the stairs. Their sadness cannot be wholly erased by a change of surroundings, change of jobs, or a new school. It can, however, be assuaged by the passage of time and a newly bred sense of normality. No family you see in the movies this year is likely to yank your heartstrings as forcefully as this one. Yet the miracle of Jim Sheridan’s In America is that for all its Irish storytelling gusto, the film veers away from simple sentimentality and emotion. These characters are so likable, the young girls (played by a real-life pair of sisters) so engagingly delightful, that we root for these survivors to succeed and overcome. The movie has a touch of magic realism and the naive winsomeness of an immigrant’s tale, but Sheridan (who wrote the script with the help of his two daughters) also injects his story with a realistic edge. The movie is never more alive than in sequences like the ones in which Johnny lassos a beat-up old air conditioner for his sweltering family or bets the rent money on winning an E.T. doll for his daughter at a carnival game of skill – all in an all-too-human attempt to recover his wounded sense of manhood and efficacy. Considine is something of a revelation to me, having only seen him previously in 24 Hour Party People, but Morton (Morvern Callar, Sweet and Lowdown) again shows that she belongs among the top ranks of actors working today. As Mateo, the story’s dark cloud and ultimate agent of the family’s emotional turnaround, Hounsou cuts a dramatic figure, veering between the extremes of howling rage and acute sensitivity. Although there clings to Mateo a bit of the new film stereotype of the mysterious black man who sets the white characters’ moral agendas back on course, Mateo is too complex and Hounsou’s performance too textured to be reduced to simple stereotyping. Sheridan (My Left Foot, In the Name of the Father) is a master storyteller and for every dab of faint Irish malarkey that finds its way into his tale, he counterbalances with more than its double in hard-edged human truths. These people and the tale of their migration and reintegration into life’s ebb and flow will remain with the viewer long after Johnny's and Sarah’s green cards expire.