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Jim Sheridan's films are all intensely personal affairs. My Left Foot, his biography of Christy Brown, delved deep into the soul of a man whose body was tormented but whose mind was sharp and clear. The Field drew the connection between land and the people who rely on it. In The Name of the Father featured one of the most remarkable examples of personal growth in one performance as Daniel Day-Lewis matured from a reckless youth to a hardened fighter while wrongly imprisoned. And The Boxer showed how an introverted man can be apolitical in the middle of social upheaval. His latest film, 2003's In America, takes autobiographical filmmaking to new heights by combining elements from two distinct periods in his life and blending them to inspire a more expressive portrait than straight autobiography normally allows.
In America tells the story of Johnny and Sarah Sullivan (Paddy Considine and Samantha Morton) and their young daughters Christy and Ariel (Sarah and Emma Bolger). The film begins with the weary family cautiously approaching the border patrol at the US-Canada border. Having lost their son Frankie, Johnny and Sarah are hoping to make a fresh start in New York City. They arrive in the city with nothing but their beat-up station wagon, which they sell for rent money. After setting up in a dark, cavernous walk-up, the family sets out on that great immigrant quest: To remake themselves as Americans.
Sheridan doesn't hammer some sort of overly complex plot. The film instead is constructed of the little moments, like Johnny dragging an enormous old air conditioner up to the apartment during a sweltering summer or the girls uneasily wearing hand-made costumes to a school costume party. The details of the film are specific enough to create this time and place and these characters but broad enough to remind the audience of the experiences of millions of immigrant families. That's a nice aspect of the script: That it can stand in for the Sullivan (or Sheridan) family but also for their entire class.
But running under the surface of character-building situations is the sense of loss and pain the family feels due to the loss of their son. Even though the characters in the film and their move to New York are based on Jim Sheridan and his family, this element comes from an earlier time in his life: Frankie was the name of his brother who died at age ten. So while the poverty, family bonding, and transition from Dublin to New York are basically autobiography, the injection of this earlier crisis takes the film into a different, deeper place.
Beginning in the border crossing scene, when Johnny instinctually answers the question of how many children they have as "three," only to be quickly corrected by Sarah (a tiny but devastating moment), the film is filled with grief. Sarah and Johnny often appear paralyzed with sadness, unable to let go of their pain. And Christy seems to talk to Frankie, narrating that he's granted her three wishes. She carefully doles out those wishes throughout the film at key moments when the family is in dire need of help. This is a smart detail since it plays on the child's point of view of life as part-fairy tale, but it also helps bring some of that atmosphere into the film as well. There is a mystical aura in In America that doesn't normally appear in realistic narratives. The closest thing I can think to seeing this energy in modern films is Heavenly Creatures or perhaps Ed Wood, films that tell tales of normal people but through the prism of their own somewhat magical perspective.
The other main character in the film also contributes to this otherworldly style. Djimon Honsou's Mateo is a fellow tenant in the gritty tenement with the Sullivans. Mateo, an artist, spends his days slashing at his canvas and bellowing loudly, possibly out of anger, possibly in pain. The girls eye him curiously and, in their fearless way, they eventually befriend him. A more cynical film would have let this character slip into stereotypical native-boogieman/mystical-black-guy-with-a-soul territory (imagine one of Oliver Stone's ridiculous native American characters in this role) but the potent combination of Honsou's fiery performance and the Sheridans' script helps make this character powerful, complex and moving. Honsou finally has a chance to inhabit a multi-faceted character and he wraps his rich voice and commanding presence around it with full force.
The entire cast is excellent. Considine is movingly simple as Johnny and Morton uses her big eyes and child-like face to elicit maximum sympathy. The Bolger sisters are a revelation in child-acting as they bring incredible energy and warmth to their performances. These are really two of the most emotionally complete kid performances in years. That they carry so much of the film's emotional burden so naturally is really a sign of their talents.
The personal approach of director Jim Sheridan extends beyond what's on the screen here. The film's script was written by Sheridan along with his daughters Naomi and Kirsten, on whom the children in the film are based. There's no doubt that this had a huge impact on the film. It does seem to pull its emotions from a variety of perspectives and for once the kids don't get short shrift. Rather than Hallmark sentiments, the kids here are tough, real people and that's undoubtedly thanks in part to the involvement of Sheridan's daughters.
The anamorphic widescreen transfer is crystal clear. Declan Quinn's textured cinematography is rendered effectively here. His bold use of colors helps the film with its unique style and the transfer here takes good care to replicate that. Images ranging from the near-pitch black lobby of the building to bright, sunny exteriors all look excellent. A full-frame version is on the flip-side of the disc (actually, the widescreen version is on the "B" side, which is somewhat annoying, since it's unlabelled.)
An English Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is available and it sounds very good. A simple, clean mix, it features lively music and clear voices. At times characters whisper very quietly and may require a little extra volume but overall the various accents and tempos don't detract from the clarity of the soundtrack. French and Spanish Dolby surround tracks are also included, as are English and Spanish subtitles.
The main special feature is a commentary track from director Jim Sheridan. Too bad a track featuring his daughters wasn't also included, but this one is very good. He speaks eloquently on the film's genesis and the personal issues that went into creating it. A nice selection of deleted scenes is also included, along with their own director commentary.
Those features appear on the widescreen side of the disc. The full-frame side features a making-of piece on the film that contains some promotional material but also gives a nice glimpse into the behind-the-scenes action. Overall, a nice little collection of extras.
Jim Sheridan hasn't made a misstep in his filmmaking career yet. His films are all deep and smart. In America is no exception. He, along with his collaborators, has turned in an example of personal filmmaking at its best. Not self-indulgent at all, but rather honest and sincere in a way that's all too unusual. It's tempting for critics to call this a "little" movie because its landscape is the human heart, but to the characters it's as big as can be.