'In America' moves audiences without shortcuts

by John Kim | 1/22/04 6:00am

Unlike other films about lower-class families, "In America" chooses not to concentrate on the struggles that the protagonists endure, but instead on the love that helps them survive.

The family does struggle, of course, but their lives are not irrevocably marked by despair.

Despite their squalid conditions, they are still capable of happiness, and it is in these small moments of joy that "In America" finds its voice.

The movie focuses on Johnny (Paddy Considine) and Sarah (Samantha Morton), an Irish couple that immigrates to New York City in order to start a new life.

Continually haunted by the ghost of their youngest son Frankie, who was killed in an accident a couple of years prior, Johnny has retreated into a state of emotional repression while Sarah still desperately seeks a way to fill the void in her heart.

The move to America is not easy, but this does not dampen the enthusiasm of Johnny and Sarah's two daughters, Christy (Sarah Bolger) and Ariel (Emma Bolger), who ignore the grime and dirt of their surroundings and instead find the silver lining of their situation, as only children can do.

Aided by the unflinching faith of their daughters and their neighbor Mateo (Djimon Hounsou), the tortured artist who becomes the family's guardian angel, Johnny and Sarah learn, in this foreign city, to treasure the beauty of life once again.

Jim Sheridan, the fiercely political Irish director of "My Left Foot" and "In the Name of the Father," has created a film of uncharacteristic warmth that lacks his usual fiery intensity, and this is perhaps because much of "In America" is based on Sheridan's own life.

This time, he has no injustice to rail against -- he simply wants to tell a story about the experiences that shaped him into the man he is today.

In doing this, Sheridan borders on clich at times as the characters all fall into rather easy stereotypes.

Johnny is the loving but emotionally distant father, while Sarah is the typical supportive wife with underestimated inner strength.

Meanwhile, Mateo is an amalgamation of two particular Hollywood favorites: the angry black man and the big intimidating guy with a heart of gold.

Nonetheless, the film is written, directed and acted with such earnestness that we come to care for these people anyway.

There are small scenes, like Christy's slightly off-key rendition of The Eagles' "Desperado" and Johnny's near-disastrous experience with an innocuous carnival game, that are unexpectedly poignant, and this is a testament to how richly the characters in this film are painted, stereotypes be damned.

The work of Considine, Morton and Hounsou is beyond reproach, as they perfectly mine the essences of their respective characters, without ever allowing their portrayals to degenerate into caricature.

The acting potential each of the three had shown in their previous work is clearly being realized in this film, and they all deserve to be recognized for it.

However, the real accolades should go elsewhere as everyone on-screen is upstaged by 13-year old Sarah Bolger who simply lights up the screen.

In a year filled with remarkable child performances (Evan Rachel Wood in "Thirteen," Keisha Castle-Hughes in "Whale Rider"), Bolger stands out as the eyes through which we see Sheridan's world. There is nary a hint of awkwardness in Bolger's turn; she is, without exaggeration, the glue that holds the movie together.

Yet while Sheridan's latest may bring tears to the eyes of the particularly sensitive, it is hurt by its utter lack of conflict.

"In America" is to be praised for avoiding the unrelenting pessimism seen in other similar films, but the gloss is sometimes excessive.

It would have been interesting, for instance, to present some kind of contrast between this family still searching for the American dream and their cokehead neighbors for whom the dream has already failed, yet this never happens.

Sheridan knows what he is doing, though, and this overly rose-colored treatment does not kill the movie.

It may manipulate the audience, but it does so without cheating, and what results is a genuinely moving, emotionally uplifting experience that doesn't make you feel guilty afterwards.

"In America" is not a perfect movie by any stretch of the imagination. But it does have heart, and sometimes, that's enough to make a movie work.