January 13, 2003
Jim Sheridan has a reputation for making intense, character-driven dramas like In the Name of the Father (1993) and The Boxer (1997). His films also contain strong social and political messages (most notably the Irish struggle for independence from England) without being too preachy. His new film, In America (2002), was written with his two daughters, Naomi and Kirsten, and pushes his political preoccupations into the background with an emphasis on character dynamics in what is his most autobiographical effort to date.
An Irish family illegally immigrates to the United States via Canada and settles in Manhattan. With no job prospects and very little money, they live in a dirty, run-down apartment building (dubbed, “the junkie’s building” by the locals) in Hell’s Kitchen. The mother (Morton) is an unemployed teacher who waits tables at a fast food restaurant and the father (Considine) is a struggling actor trying to get work. They have two young daughters, Ariel and Christy (Emma and Sarah Bolger) with much of the film told from Christy’s perspective as she documents what she sees with a small camcorder.
During Halloween, the girls trick or treat in their building but no one gives them the time of day. They try knocking on the door of a tortured artist named Mateo (Hounsou) who screams in frustration and destroys his own paintings. The girls are persistent, despite the words “Keep Away” written in huge letters on his door. Hounsou’s performance is a revelation. He strikes an imposing figure at first, but turns out to be a real softie with the girls who bring out his sensitive side. He is quite empathetic to those around him but there is something else, a great inner pain that fuels his bouts of screaming and a self-destructive side.
Sheridan isn’t concerned with a paint-by-numbers story, opting instead for having his characters’ actions drive the narrative. This is a film about human behaviour. The family suffers through their first hot and humid New York summer and so the father steals an air conditioner from one of his jobs. There is a fantastic image of him dragging the mechanism down the middle of a busy street that speaks volumes about his character.
The main obstacle that the family faces isn’t money or unemployment—it’s the death of their son, Frankie. The mother blames the father for the boy’s death, Christy talks to him like some kind of imaginary friend, and the father has kept his emotions bottled up inside, which may also explain his inability to get an acting job—he is unable to emote effectively.
The little girls, especially Emma Bolger, are precious without being precocious. For such young actors they do not resort to obvious, cutesy mugging for the camera, which is prevalent in a lot of Hollywood cinema. They play every scene realistically and without a shred of self-consciousness—something that is very rare for actresses so young. Sarah Bolger’s character narrates the film and therefore becomes the one that the audience identifies with the most. She is an astute observer and has a very expressive face that she uses well to emote.
The parents are also fantastic. Samantha Morton adds another fascinating character to her diverse repertoire. She doesn’t have many lines of dialogue, instead using her expressive eyes (that evokes another British actress, Emily Watson) to show how much she is haunted by the death of her child. Paddy Considine is excellent as the hard-working dad who loves his family. He only wants the best for his family but is an honest, stand-up kind of guy. Thankfully, Sheridan doesn’t fall into obvious traps like having the father go into a life of crime when the money gets tight or become an alcoholic when the pressures of life bear down on him. It’s a very realistic and honest performance.
As he proved with his other movies, Jim Sheridan is a keen observer of human behaviour. He realistically shows the family dynamic; how kids speak without filters and the intimate conversations between husband and wife as they try to keep a brave front in the presence of their children. It is the little details of life that Sheridan captures so perfectly, like Ariel’s belief that lemon drop candies have magical healing properties and so she gives one to Mateo when he is feeling under the weather.
Director Jim Sheridan contributes an excellent and engaging audio commentary. It is staggering how much of the film is autobiographical—drawn from his own experiences when he and his family also came into the U.S. from Canada. He talks enthusiastically about working with the actors and how he let them improvise during certain scenes. Sheridan’s track is quite funny at times (he has a dry wit) and full of fascinating anecdotes about the making of his movie.
There are nine deleted scenes and an alternate ending with an optional commentary by Sheridan. Most of the scenes are short in length but he cut them anyway because they slowed down the pacing of the movie when he needed to move things along.
Finally, there is a brief Making Of featurette that is standard promotional fluff with soundbites from the cast and crew interspersed with clips from the movie.
In America is a refreshingly simple movie filled with complex, layered performances from a talented cast. They make you care about their characters and what happens to them. This is an affecting drama that avoids the typical Hollywood clichés because the characters and the situations they are in are drawn from real life.