Rated PG-13 - Running Time: 1:47 - Released 5/8/03

Although Irish writer/director Jim Sheridan (The Boxer) has been nominated for Oscars before, for My Left Foot (1989) and In The Name Of The Father (1993), his semi-autobiographical film In America did not score a wide release—in America—until it was nominated for Academy Awards. After originally hitting the Toronto Film Festival screen in the fall of 2002 and then a few American festivals last spring, it traveled all over the world winning numerous awards and nominations in various different countries before finally getting the Oscar recognition in January for Best Actress (Samantha Morton, Minority Report), Best Supporting Actor (Djimon Hounsou, Amistad), and Original Screenplay (Sheridan and his two adult daughters, Naomi and Kirsten). This after-the-fact U.S. release schedule will certainly allow Sheridan and co. to cash in on the Oscar exposure, but it’s a shame more Americans were not able to see the film before the awards, so they could at least be aware of the performances involved. In their first screenplay together (Kirsten has written and directed several films herself and appeared in The Boxer and My Left Foot, but this is her first collaborative effort with her dad), the Sheridans tell the story of their immigration to the United States in the early 1980s, where they hoped to find a new beginning after having suffered the loss of their baby son and brother.

Johnny and Sarah Sullivan (Paddy Considine, Samantha Morton) and their two daughters, Christy and Ariel (real siblings Sarah and Emma Bolger, who were age 10 and 6 during filming), arrive in New York City during one of the hottest summers on record, with temperatures climbing over 100 degrees, and the fact that all they can afford is a small apartment on the top floor of a seedy building in a bad neighborhood—with no air conditioning—doesn’t make their life any easier. Johnny, who wants to be an actor but can’t get a break, gets a job driving a taxi to pay the bills, and Sarah works at an ice cream shop. To beat the heat, they play games and go to air-conditioned movies (like E.T.), but there still remains a heavy sense of despair over the family as they mourn their little boy, Frankie, who died of a brain tumor after suffering a fall down the stairs at age 2.

As summer turns to autumn, the girls begin Catholic school, and when Halloween rolls around, they learn of the tradition of trick-or-treating from their new American friends. Their attempt to seek candy from the neighboring apartment dwellers doesn't really pan out, but through this they meet the reclusive Mateo (Hounsou), an African-born artist who doesn’t normally invite outsiders, but is taken by the girls’ innocence and becomes their friend, as well as that of their parents. As the Sullivans grow closer to him, however, they discover that he has a secret despair of his own, and when Sarah discovers she’s expecting another baby, Mateo helps Johnny overcome his inability to accept the prospect of a new child.

Sheridan’s films always deal with subjects close to him, giving us insight into the unique Irish-Catholic perspective, whether in his own war-torn country or as an immigrant to the United States. But In America is perhaps his most personal, since it deals more specifically with his own experience and is co-written by his two daughters. Making a film this personal forces him to reveal to us his flaws and psychological issues, and telling the story from the viewpoint of his little girls is a clever way to let us see it from that light and innocent angle—quite literally, since much of the film is shot with a hand-held camera and from a low viewpoint, to indicate that it is seen through the lens of Christy’s video camera, which she carries around regularly. In this way, Sheridan can tell us this highly emotional story without letting it become bogged down in sentimentality, a factor which could easily make it too sappy for its own good. The performances of Morton, Hounsou, and Considine are real and affecting, but what is really amazing is the ease with which the two Bolger sisters immerse themselves into their roles. They are cute without being cloying; it is clear they understand the dynamic between sisters as well as the sometimes difficult issues the script throws at them. In America is another gem from this great Irish director, and it deserves to be seen no matter what country you’re from. ****½

Copyright 2004 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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