Friday, November 27, 2009

In America (2002)

Emotion raw and beautiful

For sheer catharsis, In America beats every movie I've seen since "The Sweet Hereafter" years ago. Like that movie, it deals with the aftermath of the death of a child; unlike that movie, it comes down (after much agony) on the side of a loving family as the only thing that can heal us.

The Sullivans, a young couple with two adorable daughters, slip illegally into the U.S., moving to New York. In theory this is to help Da start his acting career; in reality, it is an attempt to escape from the sad memories of young son Frankie, recently died at 5 of a brain tumor.

The performances are all, all stunning. Samantha Morton, her hair shorn like a penitent nun's, gives a stunning performance driven by the despair in her eyes. The real-world sisters Sara and Emma Bolger seem completely transparent; they leave the impression they are not acting at all, but really living the loss of their beloved brother. The African actor Djimon Hounsou looms like a sad but powerful diety over the sorrowful family, alternatively reflecting their pain and offering them solace.

The ending will surprise you - I won't give it away here - but it is a sweet resolution. The film seems to have a basis in truth, as it is written by director Jim Sheridan and his two daughters, and dedicated at the end to the memory of Frankie Sheridan (who, as it happens, was Jim Sheridan's brother rather than his son).

Heartwarming and basically terrific.

Jim Sheridan's IN AMERICA, though you may not realize it when you watch it, is a fable about wishes, dreams, good defeating bad, families growing stronger, love outlasting all adversity and America as the land of opportunity. It's a delightful film, touching without being too cute.

One thing you must realize throughout the film, when it takes turns toward optimism when other films would grow darker, is that the story is told through the eyes of Christie, the 10-year-old daughter of an Irish immigrant family recently relocated to New York. She narrates the story. She speeds it up and slows it down as she needs to. She talks of her sister Ariel's fears, of her mother's strength and of her father's lost smile. And, most importantly, she puts a positive spin on each of her proud family's struggles.

Another director might have taken this same story and gone in a different, darker direction with it. The elements are there, certainly. The family is poor, living in a tenement alongside beggars and drug addicts. Johnny, the girls' father, is an out-of-work actor who's uprooted his family to escape sad memories of his son Frankie, who died. Mateo, the next-door neighbor, and Sarah, the mother, are both faced with life-threatening conditions.

But the atmosphere that Sheridan provides us in this film is comforting and light. The city is enchanting. The tenement is both scary and magical, depending upon the story that Christie is telling the audience. No adult problem goes unsolved for long, even ones that seem particularly bleak. Throughout these positive twists, the importance of the narrator is key. Happy endings are important to a little girl, particularly one who feels so responsible for her own family. At one point in the story, for instance, she saves the family from their latest crisis and relates to her father that she's been the family's savior for a year.

Though it focuses on her entire family, it's Christie's story. And, while she's telling it, it's really moving and uplifting.

The acting here is uniformly terrific. Paddy Considine, playing Johnny the father, is a revelation. He's attractive, strong, a little crazy and yet weighed down by grief. Samantha Morton delivers another compelling performance, yet she comes off here as sweeter and more sympathetic than she did in the disappointing MORVERN CALLAR. Djimon Honsou, best known for his work in AMISTAD, is absolutely spectacular as Mateo, the girls' doomed neighbor. And Sarah and Emma Bolger, real-life sisters playing the girls in the film, manage the difficult task of playing adorable, likable, distinct children without coming off as entirely too precious and cute.

The script is terrific, and the direction is quite good.

IN AMERICA is just lovely.

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