A sweetly benign look at the immigrant experience, “In America” is Jim Sheridan’s semiautobiographical account of his family’s arrival in New York from Ireland two decades ago. Compared to the many harsher accounts of immigrant hardship that have made it to the screen, this one is warm and borderline sentimental. But the film, which premiered at Toronto under what was stressed is a “working title,” is also brimming with true and privileged moments, as well as an optimism in the face of tough circumstances that serves as a corrective to some of the more fashionably grim modern accounts of similar stories. As pic’s appeal is more emotional than cerebral, Fox Searchlight should tilt its marketing effort more toward the mainstream as opposed to more specialized auds to give it its best B.O. shot.
Sharing screenwriting credit with daughters Naomi and Kirsten, Sheridan portrays a family of four’s first year in Manhattan, a period devoted not only to adjusting and surviving with very little money, but also to recovering from the trauma of the accidental death of the clan’s 2-year-old boy. The unnamed family really has nothing going for it but a strong sense of cohesion and a general sense that things will work out somehow and this, in the end, is enough.
Slipping over the border from Canada, the family is relieved to find a large walk-up apartment to settle into, no matter how seedy the (unspecified) neighborhood, how squalid the building and how questionable the other tenants. Johnny (Paddy Considine) is a good-looking young actor who sets out on auditions while not fixing up the flat, while Sarah (Samantha Morton) looks after daughters Christy and Ariel (real-life sisters Sarah and Emma Bolger) while experiencing drastic mood swings.
Prompting the latter — indeed, motivating the entire enterprise of leaving Ireland for the New World — is the death of the couple’s son from a brain tumor that may or may not have been caused by a fall down some stairs. At her lowest moments, Sarah blames herself for this tragedy, although Johnny’s more internalized reaction may be more debilitating: Since the incident, he can’t pretend anymore, which puts a severe limit on his patience for his daughters’ games just as it may inhibit his abilities as an actor.
Among all the panhandling, anti-social, drug-riddled and alcohol-abusing rabble in their building, one stands out: The Man Who Screams. Hidden behind a forbidding door warning one and all to steer clear, the occupant of this downstairs apartment periodically emits blood-curdling screams, and when glimpsed, his hulking size and glowering eyes don’t exactly invite small talk.
But on Halloween, and with echoes of “Meet Me in St. Louis” bouncing everywhere, Christy and Ariel won’t be denied a knock on his door, and girls’ vivacious charm quickly melts the angry young man’s resistance, paving the way for a strong bond between the family and Mateo (Djimon Hounsou), who spends most of his time working on dark paintings. During a heartfelt dinner conversation with the family, Mateo allows, “I love anything that lives,” leading Johnny to suspect that their new friend is dying.
As the seasons flow from broiling summer to fall, when the girls enter Catholic school and Sarah learns she’s got another child on the way, Johnny becomes increasingly anxious. Superficially, he’s concerned about supporting his family, but unlike his wife, whose pregnancy has helped her look forward rather than back, Johnny is still stifled and consumed by his son’s death. “Make believe you’re happy, Johnny, for the kids,” Sarah urges him, but this actor has trouble acting even for his most generous audience.
The girls, in fact, have far less trouble coping than do their parents. As engaging and sympathetic as Morton and Considine are, the Bolger sisters all but steal the show as kids who smile and carry on in the face of adversity simply because it doesn’t look so bad to them. Both girls, but particularly the older Sarah, exhibit pluck and smarts that fortunately don’t come off as cute or cloying, but rather serve as an excellent example to anyone, young or old, of how to behave under less than ideal circumstances. As much as any in recent screen memory, this feels like a real family, so credible are the bonds and the degree to which the foursome rely upon and trust in one another.
As for Hounsou, it’s good to see him with an opportunity to display some range, from fury to tenderness, that has not been afforded by his noble, stalwart roles in the likes of “Gladiator” and “The Four Feathers.”
Come spring, Sarah and Mateo end up in the hospital at the same time, the former for a premature delivery and the latter for an ailment that can only be guessed at, and the convergence of life-and-death dynamics, as well as some related financial issues, are a bit too emotionally pat and dramatically easy for comfort. With the summer, one strongly feels the major changes and significant strides the family has made over the course of the year since their arrival in the United States.
The small occurrences, the “things of life,” register as vividly as the weightier matters; Johnny’s heroic attempt to lug a battered old air-conditioner up the many flights in order to give his wife and girls some relief from the beastly heat, and his ill-advised risk of all their money on an amusement park ball-toss game, remain in the mind far more than such issues as their illegal status, Johnny’s job search and so on.
Craft contributions are solid, although the score tilts precariously at times toward jaunty feel-good strains.