In America

A 10-year-old Irish girl new to the United States mournfully warbles Desperado during a performance at her Catholic school in New York. It’s a riveting moment that embodies her myriad experiences, and those of her immigrant family, in director Jim Sheridan’s semi-autobiographical In America.

Sheridan, known for his unflinching dramatizations documenting the Irish experience in My Left Foot and In the Name of the Father, turns his camera on contemporary New York in his latest film. It’s deep in Hell’s Kitchen that the Sullivans, a young, down-and-out family still reeling with guilt and remorse over the death of a son, attempt to begin a new life in a new country.

Echoing scenes from his own life, Sheridan, who shares writing credits with his real-life daughters Naomi and Kirsten, realistically illustrates how the family adjusts to a tenement home and the neighborhood junkies, transvestites and artists; how they swelter in the first blast of summer heat and revel in their first taste of autumn’s magical colors. The film is truly a family affair. The movie’s heart and highlights belong to Sarah and Emma Bolger, the real-life siblings who play the Sullivan girls: Christy (the singer), and her younger sister Ariel, who are never cutesy or sappy, and only a little too wise. Blame that on the Sheridans, who saddle Christy with the unlikely hobby of being a documentarian and have her dragging a camcorder around from the film’s start to end.

Yet the girls’ playfulness, their inquisitiveness about new friends and surroundings, and their youthful hope and innocence give the movie its fundamental, irresistible appeal, despite some significant shortcomings. Samantha Morton (Sweet and Lowdown, Morvern Callar, Minority Report) as Sarah, the mom, is fine at the outset, though she doesn’t have quite enough to do. Unfortunately, when she does get a little screen time, she’s an unbelievable martyr. She becomes pregnant, is in danger of losing the baby and loses control in one big, over-the-top scene.

Paddy Considine (24 Hour Party People, Last Resort) as Johnny, the father, also has his far-fetched dramatic moments, most of which are centered on the mythical dead son, Frankie. Yet his performance is truly magical at other times. He’s fun and charming when he fixes the shower so the kids can play in it on a hot day, or when he lugs a monstrous air-conditioner down the street and up the tenement stairs during that same humidity streak.

One day, the family escapes to the movies, seeing E.T. in the coolness of the theater. Afterward, they stop at street carnival, where Johnny plays an arcade game in which he puts the family’s entire savings on the line in an attempt to win an E.T. doll for Ariel by pitching balls at a target. It’s an excruciating, heartbreaking sequence.

In contrast to making moments of sheer joy and drama, Sheridan does falter, mostly with cloying moments of magical realism – many relating to Frankie – and with the introduction of the mysterious neighbor Mateo (Djimon Hounsou), who becomes an annoying cliche. Mateo, a temperamental abstract painter who screams when he works (and is plainly heard through the Sullivans’ wall), and who has "keep away" painted outside his apartment door, turns out to be a hackneyed gentle giant. The way he metaphysically helps the family doesn’t help matters, either. The one instance when the girls’ actions don’t hold water is when they meet him as they trick-or-treat on Halloween–they’re not scared in the least of this huge, foreboding black man who is anything but welcoming when they knock at his door.

Despite some dalliances with the maudlin and mundane, In America presents even stronger moments of straightforward sentiment. It’s a touching story about a loving family whose members each have their secrets and fears.

– Leslie Katz