The American Dream is alive and well in writer/director Jim Sheridan’s endearing and intimate portrait, “In America.” The film is not so much original in concept as it is original in presentation. Told through the eyes of two young girls, “In America” depicts the story of an Irish immigrant family coming to America in search of a new life after a devastating tragedy. It’s charming and exudes tenderness, the exact antithesis of the gritty, turbulent dramas “My Left Foot” and “In the Name of the Father” that Sheridan has made a name for. “In America” is a deeply personal work for Sheridan, who came to America flat broke while struggling to make a living. And it’s one the most lovable, moving films I have seen in recent years. Maintaining a childlike optimism and playfulness, it proffers: if you believe in magic, it will set you free.
Johnny and Sarah are Irish immigrants on their way to the land of opportunity. They come to New York City in search of the American dream. And they come to America with their two daughters in tow to start anew, particularly after the tragic loss of their son, Frankie. But the glitter and glamour of the dream and the big city lights fades quickly as the family takes residence in an impoverished part of town and tries to settle down. Surrounded by thieves, drug dealers, and drag queens and compounded by a lack of money, running water, and air condition, the family tries to stay positive.
To mask the harshness of reality from their daughters and keep their spirits up, the parents enroll them in school and take them occasionally to get ice cream and amusement at the local fairgrounds. Sarah even dresses them up for Halloween while Johnny takes them trick or treating. But no one in the apartment building cares enough to answer the door or give the children candy. Disappointed but still determined, the girls bang on one last door, that of “the screaming man.” Disgruntled and sick, the screaming Mateo tries to scare the little girls away only to be won over by their fearlessness and good nature. To the surprise of Johnny and Sarah, they have all found a friend, a kindred spirit.
But the weight of adulthood comes crashing in again. The lack of money, the difficulty in finding a job, and the loss of Frankie all resurface, threatening to tear the family apart. Making matters even more complicated is the fact that Sarah is pregnant with another child and they cannot afford the medical bills. When all hope seems lost and survival is at its most dire, in the land of opportunity, in the land of the American dream, anything is possible. Even magic.
Jim Sheridan has become one of the most prolific and successful Irish filmmakers to date, staying true to his roots, earning 13 Academy Award nominations, and delivering varying views of Irish life, history, and culture. His films such as “My Left Foot,” “The Boxer,” and “In the Name of the Father” are hard-edged, powerful dramas about truth and consequences, terrorism, and personal triumph and tragedy. And films like “Bloody Sunday” (produced) and “Some Mother’s Son” (wrote and produced) are poignant historical pieces dealing with real life Irish events like the massacre of peace protesters on that fateful Sunday in 1972 and the Irish prison hunger strikes of 1981. And so, going into this film, I was under the impression that it was going to be a heavy- handed story of Irish immigrants arriving in America and struggling to survive. But I couldn’t have been more wrong.
“In America” is a coming of age story based on the real life experiences of Jim Sheridan and his family. In fact, he co-wrote the script with his two daughters, Naomi and Kirsten Sheridan, up and coming screenwriters in their own right. But what makes this film unlike any of the aforementioned works is that it is essentially, a fairy tale. It is told through the eyes of the two girls, simplistically and with a childish enthusiasm that could melt through the toughest of hardships. The only other work Sheridan has done that stands in comparison is “Into the West,” a story about a mythical white stallion who saves two young boys from the slums of Dublin. Both films have adventures and challenges the children and adults must overcome, they have a magical realism that provides an underlying texture for drama, and they both concentrate thematically, on the redemption of the father figure.
As simple as the story is, it could not have worked without a superb ensemble performance. And it definitely would not have worked with a well-known cast. This is the story of an Irish immigrant family. But it could have been any family coming to America to start a new life. Thus, for the integrity of the film, it was important that you believe in the characters, that you have no preconceptions, and that you are free from stereotypes. Any one of these characteristics would have detracted from the essence of the film, which was to allow Christy and Ariel the ability to relay and shape the story with a joyous innocence. “You don’t play with us,” says Ariel to her father. “Not like you used to.” This dialogue is what makes the film genuine, subtle reminders that children perceive the world quite differently than adults. And they are much more aware than you think.
Part of Jim Sheridan’s brilliance is that he brings in very talented actors and actresses, brings in great source material, and stands back and lets the film evolve. Yes, Sarah and Emma Bolger are absolutely delightful, will capture your hearts, and steal every scene. But you also have stellar performances from Samantha Morton and Paddy Considine, two actors who play their roles to perfection. They may have flourished in obscurity over the last few years, but that will change after this film, similar to Sheridan’s transformation of Daniel Day Lewis. Lastly, the addition of Djimon Hounsou, who you may recall as Cinque in “Amistad” or opposite Russell Crowe in “Gladiator,” was a stroke of genius. Hounsou’s Mateo is mysterious and reclusive while coping with a disease that we’re all too familiar with. Yet despite his suffering, his true colors are visible. And for the sake of the children, he maintains their friendship while masking the adult implications of his health.
Beautifully crafted and performed, the film is not without a few noticeable flaws. For instance, it’s unlikely that any caring, concerned parent would let their child run up and down the stairs of a building full of thievery, drug addiction, and violence. It’s unlikely that a family would risk their livelihood for an E.T. doll and it’s even more unrealistic that they could all stay together after everything that’s happened. But why should everything in this world be so pessimistic? This film is refreshing because the intent is not to present a realistic, hard-edged film, but one that is nostalgic and sentimental. Rather than look at the events that transpire in the film as tragic, it opts to show them in inspiring ways. It’s not New York as seen through the eyes of an adult, but New York as seen through the eyes of the little girls. And with that childlike simplicity, unexpected, even miraculous things can happen.
“In America” is a magical, wonderfully uplifting film about love, grief, and the discovery of hope after personal loss. Its appeal lies in its ability to balance a simplified story from a child’s perspective with the hidden complexity of adult life. With inspired acting and compassion, few films this year have been as emotionally engaging or as wholesomely bittersweet. And it’s stories like this one that keep the dream alive, reassuring us that the ideals that we hold so close to our hearts can apply to anyone, no matter the race, sex, ethnicity, or culture. The American Dream can always be achieved because “in dreams and in love there are no impossibilities.” (Janos Arany, Hungarian poet).
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