By Brad Cook | July 16, 2004

I really hope Fox releases a Special Edition of “In America” sometime soon. It’s such a wonderful film—those three Academy Award nominations were richly deserved, even if they didn’t result in Oscars—that the weak batch of extras on this release is really disappointing. Normally I’d ding a DVD for such a poor showing, but I feel the need to give “In America” a pass simply because the film is great.

The film is loosely based on director Jim Sheridan’s experiences as he and his family moved to New York City from Dublin, bluffing their way past Canadian border guards in the process. While the scene where the family goes to see “E.T.” in the theater would peg this as a film set in 1982, Sheridan notes in the commentary that he strongly dislikes period films and never meant “In America” to be set in any particular time frame (don’t forget that “E.T.” was re-released in 2002). While the anal-retentive movie fans out there might insist that the film pick a year and stick to it, Sheridan’s attitude toward the setting doesn’t really bother me. It’s not like he made a World War II film and stuck a cell phone in a character’s hand.

While I think Samantha Morton and Djimon Hounsou deserved their nominations, I’d argue that Emma Bolger certainly should have picked up a Supporting Actress nod for her portrayal of Ariel. Both she and her sister do a wonderful job portraying the innocence and joy of two kids brought to a strange place and loving it despite the bleak surroundings. While their parents (played by Morton and Paddy Considine) worry about making the girls happy, Ariel and Christy struggle to make them understand that they’re the ones who need to be happy, specifically by coming to terms with the death of a third child who died before the story starts. Mateo (Hounsou), their downstairs neighbor, comes across as a lunatic when he’s first introduced, but the girls overwhelm him with their genuinely happy spirits, and soon he becomes a friend to the family. His character serves as a bridge between the girls and their parents, a link strongly established in a powerful scene that will make any parent cry,

I was concerned when I started watching “In America” that it would be a depressingly bleak tale in the vein of “Angela’s Ashes,” but Sheridan smartly steers clear of that. While Hell’s Kitchen could never be considered family-friendly, we get to see more of its inhabitants’ generosity toward the immigrants and less of the crime that permeates the area. And that’s a good thing, because this family has enough to go through as they negotiate a horrendously difficult period in their lives; an attempted rape of the mother or the theft of Christy’s camcorder would just be piling on the troubles, so Sheridan wisely stays away from external threats and keeps the focus on the internal conflicts. I highly recommend this film to anyone who enjoys a well-constructed character-driven drama.

As for this DVD release, as I said at the beginning, it leaves something to be desired. First, Fox shouldn’t have bothered with throwing a full screen version of the film on this disc. Does the audience for this movie really overlap with the group of DVD buyers who hate “those little black bars”? Considering that “In America” has a 1.85:1 aspect ratio, those bars aren’t very big anyway, and removing the full screen version would have allowed the making-of featurette to breathe. Clocking in at a paltry five minutes, you’re barely settled in before it’s over. C’mon, Fox, use that flip-side for a nice hour-long documentary that pulls in Sheridan’s daughters, who co-wrote the script with him, and really digs into the nuts and bolts of the film’s history.

Both versions of the film feature a commentary by Sheridan, which helps fill in some holes but could have benefited from involvement by his daughters. In addition to talking about the real story behind the film, he also gets into the mechanics of filmmaking and storytelling, which is nice for the aspiring directors out there. Sheridan also provides commentary on the ten deleted scenes, including an alternate ending, which unfortunately weren’t cleaned up at all for release (some even have time codes and “Property of Fox Searchlight” stamps on them, which is distracting). Unlike most deleted scenes collections, however, this cut footage does provide some interesting glimpses into sub-plots Sheridan was developing before he correctly decided to focus completely on the family. The alternate ending certainly shows how hard it is to pick just the right footage that makes a film shine; choose wrong and the whole endeavor can collapse. Unfortunately, the director’s comments during the deleted scenes are sparse and feature a lot of dead air, unlike his feature commentary, which moves along briskly even with Sheridan’s slow, Irish-tinged drawl.

Overall, this is a worthwhile purchase if you enjoyed the film the first time around. Just keep an eye out for a Special Edition, which is hopefully in the works. I like to stay ahead of the game by dumping an inferior release on eBay when a better one is announced.

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