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IN AMERICA (PG-13) (2003)

Fox Searchlight

Official Site

Director: Jim Sheridan

Producers: Jim Sheridan, Arthur Lappin

Written by: Jim Sheridan, Naomi Sheridan, Kirsten Sheridan

Cast: Samantha Morton, Paddy Considine, Djimon Hounsou, Sarah Bolger, Emma Bolger

Rating: out of 5

This is a film about an Irish family that moves to New York City to start anew. Unavoidably this film could be categorized as an immigrant story, but that description has a bad ring to it and you’re probably thinking you’ve seen it all before. After all, the phrase “immigrant story” conjures up the image of films as limp as Angela’s Ashes, poor dirty children and their shabbily dressed parents standing on the deck of an old steamship with suitcases in hand, bracing for culture shock with adventurous smiles. Family then moves into a dilapidated hovel and kids gets their asses kicked at school because they eat sauerkraut and talk funny. Parents sweat and toil at back-breaking jobs that barely pay the rent—but in the end the universal theme of life’s bittersweet rewards and the strength of familial love comes shining through! Sure, you’ve seen it all before and there is no denying it: In America is an immigrant story, but it’s an updated, sexier version, and it’s extraordinarily well-done. There are no convoluted plot twists or extreme action sequences. This is simply straightforward story-telling cinema in its purest, most entertaining form.

True, at first glance In America does seem chock-full of those tired old clichés. The Sullivan family, Johnny (Considine), Sarah (Morton) and their two young daughters, Christy and Ariel (Sarah and Emma Bolger), leave Ireland in the early 1980s and move into the upper floor of a rundown tenement in New York City. Their neighbors are an odd assortment of losers and junkies, as well as a mysterious artist who keeps to himself (Hounsou). There are universal themes of learning to adapt and coping with hardship; the kids are embarrassed because they don’t quite understand American traditions on Halloween. The parents toil at menial jobs and scrimp to pay the monthly bills.

But here the connections with immigrant stories of the past come to a screeching halt, and you realize it’s not a film about starting over; it’s about learning to move forward. The Sullivan family is not just trying to make a go of it in the Big Apple, though we are initially led to believe that, in part because Johnny is a stage actor, and where else does one go for a shot at fame and success but the theaters of New York City? But in piecemeal fashion, it is revealed the Sullivan family is desperately seeking escape from a painful tragedy that happened back in Ireland. They must slowly learn that packing up and starting anew provides little diversion or solace.

The film’s chief narrator is 11-year-old Christy, who simultaneously possesses worldly wisdom and youthful innocence. Through her voice, the film has a fairy-tale-like wonderment about it, and her childish perspective is partly why the film works so well and avoids formulaic traps. And let’s face it, one would be hard pressed to find fault with a film featuring the buxom and leggy Samantha Morton. They are but two of a powerful cast of actors who make you forget a camera crew is shooting the film. Not only do you feel like you’re standing in the room with the actors, you also never quite know where the story will veer next, and these are just about two of the highest compliments you can bestow on a film.

Perhaps the only shortcomings of the picture are its unimaginative title and lackluster marketing strategy. The name of this film is too vague and amorphous, and the poster art showing firecrackers over the New York skyline does little to generate the excitement this film deserves. In America merits a large audience. It should not be a powerful film that quietly disappears. Don’t let the unassuming parts keep you from seeing one of the most enjoyable films of the year.

—Nancy Semin


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