Jim Sheridan's In America debuted over a year ago at the 2002 Toronto International Film Festival, where it screened late enough in the 10-day fête to make me wonder whether the picture was really as good as it seemed, or if I was just delirious from the non-stop cinematic smorgasbord (and subsequent inability to feel anything below my waist). I've had 14 months to think about it, and I've reached the conclusion that In America is storytelling at its best --- a fact confirmed by its distributor's decision to postpone a spring 2003 theatrical date in order to release the film in the more Oscar-friendly period between Thanksgiving and Christmas.
In America tells the story of an Irish family trying to make a go of it in New York City in the early 1980s. The film's opening scene shows the family, in what one would kindly call a Griswold Wagon, attempting to cross the border from Canada into the US for a "short holiday." It's here we learn the family of four used to be a family of five, with sole son Frankie recently dying in a household accident.
Aside from an all-canine reenactment of the Civil War, there may not be anything as precious as seeing a child take in Manhattan for the first time as they emerge from the Holland Tunnel. Ten-year-old Christy (Sarah Bolger), armed with her own video camera to permanently capture the once-in-a-lifetime moment, also serves as In America's narrator, carefully explaining how her clan ended up living The American Anti-Dream. Their home is an East Harlem building full of junkies and transvestites. Aspiring actor Johnny (Paddy Considine) drives cabs at night, and former schoolteacher Sarah (Samantha Morton) works in an ice cream shop across the street. Little sister Ariel (Emma Bolger, Sarah's real-life sister) is a constant companion, too.
The family gets into a few crazy situations. Some are funny, like when Johnny hauls an air conditioner up the stairs to their top-floor walkup apartment only to find out the appliance doesn't have the standard plug. Some are not, like when Johnny nearly blows all of their meager savings while trying to win his girls an E.T. doll at a crooked carny game. Christy, who thinks dead brother Frankie left her three wishes before she dies, also thinks she's bailing her family out of sticky situations by using those very same wishes. The last one is, of course, saved for something really special, which materializes in the form of both an unexpected and rather medically complicated pregnancy, and a giant, scary, screaming black man (Djimon Hounsou) who lives in an apartment underneath Christy's.
If there's one negative in the film, it's in the portrayal of Hounsou's tortured artist as another one of those Magical Movie Black Folks who sticks around long enough to show whitey the light via some strange, unearthly powers of frightening tribal mysticism (there aren't any white mice, though). That said, In America's story is based on Sheridan and his family's own move to New York. It's also co-written by his two daughters, Naomi and Kirsten, so you wonder just how much is autobiographical and how much is relying on the fanciful memory of a young child. How else would you explain landing such a sweet apartment in a building full of the world's friendliest dregs of humanity?
Like My Life Without Me (see festival review in this issue), In America carefully dances the fine line between exquisitely emotional and ridiculously saccharine manipulation in a very successful way. Some people won't be able to put themselves on the right side of that fence and won't enjoy either film (and I feel sorry for them). In America is much more of a fairytale than My Life, which makes it a little easier to swallow. Both, however, are blessed with actors who look and act like a legitimate family.
Sheridan has twice been nominated for Best Director and Best Screenplay in the same year, though that feat is made more impressive by the fact that My Left Foot and In the Name of the Father were, respectively, his first and third features. Number two --- The Field --- saw Richard Harris nab a Best Actor nod, meaning Sheridan's knack for pulling great performances from his on-camera talent was responsible for garnering six Oscar nominations and two wins for those three films.
In America is no different, with absurdly strong, yet never once unbelievable, performances across the board. If they still had the kiddie Oscars, the Bolgers would be locks. Look for Morton to be in the awards fray, even though her part isn't quite as generous as Constantine's, who must funnel Johnny's grief over his dead son into an inability to emote when auditioning for work.