Based on experiences from writer/ director Jim Sheridan's own immigration experience, In America is a hallmark card of a film. It is sincere, emotional, and deeply affecting without ever being depressing.
In the opening moments of the film we are introduced to Johnny, Sarah and their two daughters: pensive Christy and chatty Ariel. As the family approaches the border to the U.S. it is revealed that the family is light one member, a little boy named Frankie who passed away. Christy, the narrator of the film, informs us that Frankie has bestowed upon her three wishes. She uses her first wish to get the family through the border crossing and on their way to New York City. The film is supposed to be set in the present day, however, music such as The Byrds, "Turn, Turn, Turn" and other cultural references remind the audience that this story is based on real events from Sheridan's past.
The entire film has the lyrical feeling of a fable, although the experiences of the family are quite realistic. The only place the family can afford to live is a ramshackle flat in Hell's Kitchen. Most of their neighbors are drug addicts, but the boisterous little girls are so taken with their new life, they are quite fearless. When Halloween comes around, the pair go throughout the building in search of treats and this is when they encounter the mysterious painter Mateo.
Through another storyteller's eyes, In America would be a bleak tale about the harsh reality of starting a new life. Sheridan instead pays tribute to a child's ability to use their imagination to cope with unpleasant situations. The film is narrated by the ten-year-old Christy and her perspective provides the film with a lyrical lightness that prevents the tone of the film from ever being preachy or depressing.
Not everything works. In one scene, Sheridan cuts between shots of Mateo painting, Johnny and Sarah copulating, and a thunderstorm. It's a little hokey, but so is the aforementioned hallmark card.
In a particularly well-constructed sequence, the family goes to the movies to escape the sweltering summer heat (they see E. T.). After the film, little Ariel comments, "I have no one to play with, no one to tell my secrets to." In the very next scene, her father will put everything on the line to win his daughter an E. T. doll from a booth at a carnival. Oh, this film tugs on your heartstrings but it does it in a way which seems so sincere.
All of the performances are outstanding. On exchange in particular, between Johnny and Mateo turns the whole film in an instant. Johnny, asks a pointed question of Mateo, and the response is not at all what he expected. Instead of over-reacting to the moment, actor Paddy Considine simply allows the effect of the statement wash over his face. Perfect.
The family has a great, natural dynamic. I was surprised to learn that the little girls are sisters in real life. They played their parts so well there was a perfect balance of estrangement due to tragedy and honest familiarity. Samantha Morton handles her character well, she is clearly passionate about her family, but she never comes on too strong.
In America wears its heart on its sleeve and makes deliberate tugs at the viewer's emotions but never falters into melodrama or cheap sentiment. If you're in the mood for a heartwarming, well told story, you won't want to miss In America.
-Megan A. Denny