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TOP 100 MOVIES in 2002!
IN AMERICA, 2002
Starring: Samantha Morton, Paddy Considine, Djimon Hounsou, Emma Bolger, Sarah Bolger,
Irish immigrants, Johnny and Sarah, arrive in New York City with their two young daughters, Christy and Ariel. The family is dealing with the aftermath of the death of the youngest child, Frankie. They move into a tenement apartment in Hell’s Kitchen and Johnny, an aspiring actor, makes the rounds of auditions. Soon Johnny and Sarah are expecting a new baby, while Christy and Ariel strike up a friendship with a mysterious artist, Mateo, who lives in their building. Despite the various crises that arise from being impoverished in New York, the family finds hope in each other and in friendship with Mateo.
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“In America” is Jim Sheridan’s fifth film and the first to be set beyond Ireland. It is a semi-autobiographical story based on his own early foray into the New York theatre world in the early 1980s. No matter the political or social context within with Sheridan sets his films, his real subject is always the importance and intricacies of family relationships. In “My Left Foot” he explored the deep bond between mother and son. “In The Name of the Father” featured the relationship between father and son. “The Boxer” delved into both father/daughter and mother/son issues. Significantly, this film is co-authored with his two daughters, Naomi Sheridan and Kirsten Sheridan. They were the same age as the two fictional girls portrayed here when Sheridan moved to New York with his family. In the film, the out of work actor, Johnny (Paddy Considine), has a special relationship with his two young daughters, Christy (Sarah Bolger) and Ariel (Emma Bolger). Sheridan’s care and attention in bringing the girls’ perspective to life is the evident return on getting his own daughters’ input into his script. Further, Sheridan cast two real life sisters, Emma and Sarah Bolger as the two little girls. The real life sisters give the fictional ones an unforced connection and a believable rapport. The final autobiographical note is the naming of the deceased sibling after Sheridan’s own deceased brother, Frankie, to whom he dedicates the film in the final credits.
In fact, it is this trauma that seems to have motivated Sheridan to make “In America.” The core theme of the film is the examination of how a close family overcomes grief in the midst of a challenging new life in New York City. Sheridan’s touch is generally delicate in dealing with this harrowing subject. He is wonderful at capturing a child’s sensibility and point of view; never condescending or cute, he nonetheless has a terrific talent for observation and takes Christy’s and Ariel’s feelings and experiences seriously. You can tell he has observed children closely. Christy, at 10, is the older girl. She carries a camcorder with her constantly to record the family’s life, while simultaneously keeping it at an emotional distance. It is her voice over we hear throughout the film as she calmly lets us know that she is the family’s chronicler. Sheridan gives her an observant intelligence, so on the drive into Manhattan, for instance, Christy observes, “We heard Manhattan before we ever saw it. A thousand strange voices coming from everywhere”. More importantly, Christy has cast herself in the role of protector. Sheridan understands and sensitively dramatizes a child’s often intense sense of responsibility for their family’s happiness in the wake of trauma; as well as the emotional toll it takes on the young survivor.
Sheridan’s secondary theme, that of the immigrants’ sense of awe and frustration with their new home, is deftly woven into the story. The family’s life in Hell’s Kitchen is never easy. Every day seems to bring a fresh obstacle to be overcome; from the inevitable unemployment of an aspiring actor; to Johnny being mugged by a junkie in the hallway of the tenement; to the girls being misfits in their new school. Still the family establish friendships, most significantly with Mateo (Djimon Hounsou), an artist dying of a mysterious disease, never named, but which we, in the audience, understand to be AIDS.
Sheridan makes particularly effective use of montage to illustrate this aspect of the film. In an early scene of the family arriving in Manhattan, the filmmaker actually succeeds in making Times Square seem magical as the family takes in the overwhelming impact of the city. Later, Sheridan will dramatize the night the new baby is conceived by creating a powerful montage sequence of the children sitting in a local ice cream parlor (providentially called Heaven), where their parents have sent them while they make love at home. Intercut with these scenes is our first real glimpse of Mateo at work in the depths of his studio. Childhood wonder, creativity, adult passion and desire all intermingle before Sheridan’s camera in startling contrast, both visual and emotional. These are the most successful, and memorable, sequences in the film.
Despite this lapse on Sheridan’s part, the film still works overall. It is beautifully photographed by Declan Quinn in clear, clean colors. Even the run down tenement where the family lives is brightly shot. The cast is uniformly excellent. Even though the two girls are the stars of the picture, Samantha Morton still manages to register with a quiet intensity as their mother and received an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress. Paddy Considine is both funny and moving as Johnny. Djimon Hounsou earned his Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor by doing powerful work bringing to life a sketchily written character.
“In America” is a thoughtful and deeply felt exploration of a family coming to terms with its grief over the loss of a child; and thus of issues of life, death, love and friendship. Jim Sheridan has done his considerable best to encase these sober observations on family life in an open, friendly package. It is a tricky combination to attempt and Sheridan deserves credit for largely succeeding.