In America (2002)
In America is a brilliant film about an Irish family who moves to New York in search of better opportunities for themselves. While this sounds like a cliche, the story and characters are anything but, and because of this, they resonate deeply with the viewer. Instead of a hackneyed family-getting-to-know-America story, we get people dealing with real issues, struggling not only to fit in in their new home, but also to fit in in their own family.
The Sullivan family moves to New York, and they are basically flat broke and with no prospects for income. The Sullivans consist of father Johnny (Paddy Considine), mother Sarah (Samantha Morton), and their daughters Christy and Ariel (real-life Dublin sisters Sarah and Emma Bolger). They are dealing with the loss of their son Frankie, who Christy believes is watching over them, and will grant their wishes when they really need them. Johnny and Sarah have been dealing with the loss in different ways: Sarah would rather just be able to forget her son and concentrate on loving her daughters who are still alive, but Johnny has never been able to distance himself from Frankie.
They move into an apartment in a house filled with junkies, and a downstairs neighbor who often screams quite loudly. They eventually meet this man, Mateo (Djimon Hounsou), and discover that he's actually quite an amiable man, though Johnny is hesitant to accept him, suspicious of his motives. The girls develop a fondness for Mateo, as he plays games with them, and when Sarah becomes pregnant again, Mateo assures her that good things will come with the new baby. However, Sarah learns that if the baby will have health problems if it comes too soon, and she herself will have health problems if it's too late. However, the girls become worried when Mateo's health begins deteriorating, and when their father becomes increasingly distant as he struggles to keep his family afloat in America.
Director Jim Sheridan co-wrote the screenplay with his daughters Naomi and Kirsten based on their own life story, and it's clear from the outset that this is a perfectly realistic portrayal of a family with hopes and dreams that often exceed their means. This is not a fairy tale story of American opportunity and success; instead it is a story of personal pain and the difficulties we have in coping with the loss of family members taken from us at an early age.
The acting is phenomenal by everyone involved. Paddy Considine and Samantha Morton both give wonderfully nuanced performance in difficult roles: they have to be loving parents and spouses, yet detached and melancholy at the same time, and they pull it off. The young actors are excellent as well: Emma Bolger infuses Ariel with sprightly vigor, and Sarah Bolger creates the character of Christy as a young girl who's been forced to grow up faster than she'd like, but taking it all in stride. And Djimon Hounsou, who is usually cast as some sort of African barbarian, finally gets an opportunity to play a character that is not just a stereotypical role. Mateo is at first unsettling, but Hounsou's charisma allows us to believe in the size of Mateo's heart and his raw passion for life.
I cannot say enough good things about In America. It is a tale filled with wonderful characters, and it manages to bring across its theme of hope without using sentimental sap, but rather by investing its story in its characters and not the other way around. We feel their sadness and can relate to their feelings and actions, though we might not always agree with what they do or say. But that's life: we don't always want to act a certain way, but sometimes it's not up to us. You just have to trust in your loved ones to carry some of the load for you.
April 18, 2005