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Family Bonds:
Jim Sheridan's In America

Morton and Considine with the Bolgers
Morton and Considine with the Bolgers
December 4, 2003 | New York City rises from the ether of possibility at the beginning of writer/director Jim Sheridan’s In America, presenting itself as a colorful beacon of hope to an Irish immigrant family. As scored and cut to the rhythms of The Lovin’ Spoonful’s "Do You Believe in Magic," this opening montage effectively announces Sheridan’s fanciful, yet honestly emotional, intentions. New York is as magical here as was Steven Spielberg’s everywhere suburbia in E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982). It’s no surprise then that E.T. and Spielberg are two of In America’s cultural touchstones.

Certain critics have placed In America’s story within the early 1980s, ostensibly because of autobiographical import (Sheridan, a struggling artist, and his family lived in New York around that time) in addition to a scene in which husband Johnny (Paddy Considine) and wife Sarah (Samantha Morton) take daughters Christy (Sarah Bolger) and Ariel (Emma Bolger) to a summertime screening of E.T. In truth, In America never definitively mentions its time period, forcing the film to be viewed, like E.T. and its numerous re-issues, through a timeless prism.

Family Bonds
Family Bonds
Sheridan finds the tragic, mercantile poetry of Spielberg’s fantasia in a revelatory carnival scene where Johnny attempts to win his youngest daughter Ariel an E.T. doll. The victory carrot dangling, Johnny bets more and more of his family’s money, recklessly giving over to capitalist chance in an effort to satiate familial desire. Here, in a metaphorical nutshell, is the outsider’s struggle in the land of the free. The scene’s outcome hinges on a wish by eldest daughter Christy to the family’s deceased brother Frankie, victim of a debilitating brain tumor. Christy’s faith silently strengthens the family bonds, setting up her later, gut-wrenching admission that "I’ve been carrying this family on my back" and providing In America with its redemptive Christian backbone.

Honsou - The man who screams
Honsou - "The man who screams"
Sheridan visualizes this redemption symbolically through several cinematic interplays. Christy’s propensity for videotaping certain intimate moments helps to delineate between her family’s hopeful outer fantasies and their tortured inner realities. Johnny is stripped bare in one of these moments when a newly pregnant Sarah asks him if he can feel their unborn baby kicking. "No," he states bluntly within his daughter’s camcorder viewfinder before walking off. Sheridan uses video here to point out film’s singular inadequacy at capturing emotional reality beyond the broadest strokes. It’s only through the faithful use of the tools of our trade (be we fathers or filmmakers) that the depths emerge. Filmmaking equals faith for both Christy and Sheridan, and both take the burden of familial/story redemption on their shoulders.

Considine - I’ve been carrying this family on my back
Considine - "I’ve been carrying
this family on my back"
Key to the journey is the family’s relationship with Mateo (Djimon Hounsou), a reclusive artist living in their tenement building and dying of an unspecified disease. There has been some valid questioning of Sheridan’s intentions here. On paper, the black artist helping the white family see the light rightly seems a hoary, racist cliché. But this is to sorely misread Sheridan’s final product, as well as Hounsou’s expert performance. Recall again the Spielberg connection: Hounsou starred as the imprisoned slave Cinque in Amistad (1997), speaking that film’s heart through simple dialogue. ("Give us free!") Hounsou’s reading of that line, coupled with his inherently cinematic physical presence, effectively broke down racial, and racist, barriers. The same applies here.

Mateo is introduced first as a threatening, primal voice – "The man who screams," says a building resident. Starting from this place of disassociation, Sheridan breaks down the self-imposed boundaries in a sequence of parallel psychic connection. Recalling the audacious letters scene of Spielberg’s The Color Purple (1985), Sheridan intercuts Johnny and Sarah’s lovemaking with Mateo’s frenzied destruction of his artwork. "That was the night the baby was conceived," says Christy in voice-over, thus acknowledging the destructive impulse intrinsic to any act of creation and subtly suggesting Mateo’s climactic transubstantiation.

In America
It is to Hounsou’s credit that he gives this role, undoubtedly and unavoidably thin on the page, a necessary layer of humanity. Indeed, it is through In America’s basic underlying theme of faith that this character’s conception becomes justifiable. Truly, some people in life are walking metaphors to whom we feel an inextricable connection. Both Hounsou and Sheridan profoundly visualize this idea while keeping full sight of Mateo’s soul. It is therefore in no way mawkish or unearned when Mateo, on his deathbed, compares himself to E.T. It could be argued that illness helps to open one’s mind to the simplest of metaphors. Faced with inevitability we are forced to drop the pretense and genuinely connect with those around us. Sheridan and Hounsou find the expressive joy in the body’s painful destruction. The end result is In America’s concluding image: A glorious close-up of a full moon that belongs not only to Mateo, Sheridan, and Spielberg/E.T., but to all of us. In this moment, the poetry of an individual soul becomes the art of the universe.

In America is currently playing in select theaters and will expand throughout December. Click here for a list of current and upcoming theaters.

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