By JANE WILSON, Special Contributor | Published January 22, 2004
“In America,” Jim Sheridan’s story of an Irish family’s immigration to New York in search of a new life, may begin slowly, but by the end the film rewards the viewer with a huge emotional payoff and an uplifting message about how people can draw strength from each other to overcome adversity.
The film tells the story of Johnny and Sarah (Paddy Considine and Samantha Morton), a young Irish couple who have brought their two small daughters, Christy and Ariel, to live in Manhattan. Johnny hopes to find work as an actor, but never seems to land a part. He is told that, although technically correct, his acting lacks emotion. The family settles into the city and goes about creating a new life for themselves.
Each member seems to be adapting. As the story progresses, though, it becomes apparent that none of them has recovered from the death of the fifth member of the family, Johnny and Sarah’s son, Frankie. In the course of the film, as they cope with a complicated pregnancy and form a friendship with a neighbor living with AIDS, they learn to accept Frankie’s death and live with the loss, with an emphasis on learning to truly live again.
The film is paced leisurely, and the characters reveal themselves slowly. Each member of the family obviously cares for the others, but they are separated by the inability to express or acknowledge their emotions and fears. Only the youngest, Ariel, is able to put her feelings into words; she tells her family how lonely she feels without someone in whom she can confide her secrets. This leads to a scene in which the family visits a street fair, and Johnny tries to win a stuffed ET doll for his daughter. This scene demonstrates the complicated dynamics at work. Below a calm surface, Johnny feels helpless, Sarah is resigned to the worst, and only the two girls retain their hope.
The turning point in the story comes when the girls accidentally befriend Mateo (Djimon Hounsou), the “screaming man.” He is an artist who is dying of AIDS, and he faces his own mortality with rage. Johnny and Sarah, Christy and Ariel, each respond strongly to Mateo, and his presence allows them to communicate and acknowledge their own emotions more honestly. Once they begin to open up, they learn to rely on each other emotionally.
The cast is uniformly excellent. The adults give restrained, believable performances in roles that could have easily become melodramatic. The two girls, Christy and Ariel, are played by real-life sisters Sarah Bolger and Emma Bolger. Their performances are nothing less than remarkable, both touching and charming. Christy is wise and brave, and looks at life through the lens of her camcorder. Ariel is more gregarious, but is often lonely. Both girls believe in the power of magic and faith, and their hope is their family’s anchor. The parents acknowledge that, at times, the only thing that keeps them going is their daughters.
It is interesting to note that the story has several elements of autobiography. Jim Sheridan wrote the screenplay with his two daughters, Naomi and Kirsten, based on some of their experiences when they came to the United States.
The Manhattan of the film is a romanticized version of the city. A coat of paint transforms a dilapidated loft filled with pigeons into a cozy home. The girls are safe as they sit in Johnny’s cab on the street or when Sarah gives them a pocketbook containing all the rent money and tells them to go on their own to the ice cream parlor. Even the neighborhood junkie has a nice side. Although the level of freedom enjoyed by the girls is nerve-wracking at times, the significance is that the two little girls see the wonderful possibilities inherent in their new home. They have made Manhattan into a village and strangers into friends.
The presence and absence of faith is an important topic in the film. The girls and their mother have a strong belief, evidenced by the girls’ prayer for their family and discussions of an afterlife, but Johnny has lost his faith in God after the death of his son. As the film comes to its conclusion, he learns to lean on the strength of his family and begins to see the beauty and magic possible in life again.
Although the film moves slowly at times, the characters and the emotions they portray are consistently honest and touching. “In America” is a story about what it means to choose to be truly alive to the world and the people around you.
Jane Wilson, a local writer and film enthusiast, holds a doctorate in English from the University of Georgia. She is a parishioner at St. Pius X Church, Conyers.