Johnny (Paddy Considine) and his family are neither your stereotypical Irish immigrants — no Ellis Island arrival by ship — nor are they stereotypical illegal immigrants — no dusty and dangerous desert trek after forging the Rio Grande. Stereotypical or not, Johnny, his attractive young wife Sarah (Samantha Morton), and their impossibly cute daughters Christy (Sarah Bolger) and Ariel (Emma Bolger) are illegal Irish immigrants, coming to America by way of Canada in a beat-up station wagon. In spite of their unorthodox arrival, the family does share some traits with the thousands of immigrants who helped build this nation before them; characteristics such as a fierce desire to succeed and a willingness to work impossibly hard in order to do so. They’re also trying to put some things behind them, namely the tragic death of their young son, Frankie.
“In America” is unusual in that its narrative structure follows the family over the course of an entire year as they get settled in and gain their foothold. As such, the film’s plot points develop at a leisurely pace, as do the family’s relationships with the other tenants in their decrepit apartment building. Of particular interest is the family’s growing attachment to Mateo (Djimon Hounsou), a massive and intimidating reclusive artist who, we learn, is dying of AIDS.
It’s easy to forget that the wave of immigration upon which America was founded continues to this day, albeit it at a greatly reduced and less obvious rate. Director Jim Sheridan’s fine and uplifting semi-autobiographical film provides a gentle reminder of this fact. “In America” is a solid, family-friendly film that’s wholesome overall but not in an unrealistically saccharine sort of way. It does, after all, touch on such delicate topics as racial tension, drug abuse, and AIDS, if only to a slight degree.
The film also spends a significant amount of time watching the family, and particularly Johnny, work through Frankie’s death, especially when Sarah becomes pregnant with a child that, if carried to full term, poses significant risks to the young wife and mother.
Perhaps the most amazing aspect about this film is the performance Sheridan gets out of real life sisters Sarah and Emma Bolger, the little girls who play Christy and Ariel, respectively. This whole family is ridiculously attractive, but these two amazing young ladies are the absolute keys to making this picture work.
Definitely designed to tug on its audience’s heartstrings, a task at which it completely succeeds, “In America” is ultimately a solid, if unspectacular family film.