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'America' the beautiful

The story of a family trying to find happiness and hope in their new homeland takes viewers on a rewarding emotional journey.

Published December 25, 2003

Their first sight in In America isn't the Statue of Liberty or Ellis Island, but a border patrol officer doubting their excuse to enter from Canada and letting them through the checkpoint anyway. They seem safe enough; young Irish parents with two adorable little girls. They declare an intention to holiday in the United States, but they intend to blend into 1980s New York like so many immigrants before.

For the struggling family, a new country means a new start. The most imposing baggage they bring is the ghost of another child, a son, who died in a household accident.

Johnny (Paddy Considine) wants to be an actor. His wife Sarah (Samantha Morton) just wants to be happy again. Daughters Christy and Ariel (real-life siblings Sarah and Emma Bolger) are always happy, as innocents usually are.

Director Jim Sheridan grew up in circumstances similar to this. He wrote the screenplay for In America with his own two daughters, Naomi and Kirsten. The result is an intensely personal film welcoming any heart that wants to share the simple joys and crushing sorrows of a timid family in a brave new world.

This is a tearjerker for all the right reasons. Because it's delicately manipulative and the characters are so precisely emotional. And because Sheridan's manner with the material makes crying seem like a cleansing, an affirmation that something so simple and sweet can still move us.

My tears began in the carnival scene when Johnny, attempting to finally do something that makes the move to the United States seem worthwhile, gets hooked into a ball toss game to win his girls an E.T. doll.

Even the carny looks concerned as Johnny wagers a month's rent for one more chance to win. It sounds corny, as much of In America might in cold print, but it works. As Johnny took his throws, I became fully invested in this family's emotional dynamics. I knew them, I liked them, and please let something go right for them.

A mawkish approach wouldn't do that. There is great humor and hope in Sheridan's film, even when things are bleakest for the family. Living in a rundown tenement building involves some danger but it also brings out the best in some neighbors.

One is Mateo (Djimon Hounsou), an angry man upstairs whose screams and spray-painted door warning make him the Boo Radley of the piece. During their first Halloween experience with tricks and treats, Christy and Ariel bang on Mateo's door, seeing the glowering, muscular man for the first time. At that point in a recent screening a woman led two young children out of the theater, expecting the worst. That's a measure of Sheridan's effectiveness in staging the sequence, but not what In America is about.

Instead, Mateo takes a gentle liking to the girls, then Sarah, bringing Johnny's feelings of inadequacy to a boil. In an extraordinary scene the two men face off: "Do you love my wife?" Johnny yells. "I love your wife and I love your children," Mateo yells louder, "And I love you."

Immediately the tone changes as Johnny sees something in Mateo's face revealing who he is and why he rages. We share his insight and In America attains yet another emotional pull.

The sentiments are magnified because Sheridan tells his story through the eyes of the two girls, at times through the viewfinder of Christy's video recorder (one of several anachronisms for the 1980s setting). The Bolger sisters are certainly easy to embrace, two of the most natural child actors I've ever seen. They aren't automatons like Dakota Fanning or Cheaper by the Dozen's brood but genuine kids handling their roles with such ease that everything seems improvised.

The elder sister, Christy, is the soul of Sheridan's film. At one point Christy sings Desperado in a school program, a Johnny song if there ever was one, and the sound you hear in the background is your heart breaking. In a heated moment, she claims that she's been carrying the family on her shoulders for a year, and you don't doubt it. The Bolgers are cute and much more in service of this film.

In America works so well as an aimless fable that when the Sheridans shift into resolution mode the pieces fit together a bit too easily.

Then you begin thinking of what he might have done with this story - cheap child-in-jeopardy twists, adultery, the usual Hollywood stuff - and the finale sits just fine. I loved this unassuming, heartfelt little gem, even if I couldn't stop sobbing for an hour after the show. It's just so beautiful.

In America

Grade: A

Director: Jim Sheridan

Cast: Samantha Morton, Paddy Considine, Sarah Bolger, Emma Bolger, Djimon Hounsou, Juan Hernandez, Ciaran Cronin

Screenplay: Jim Sheridan, Naomi Sheridan, Kirsten Sheridan

Rating: PG-13; sexuality, profanity, drug references, brief violence

Running time: 103 min.

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