BY LYNN LEE
“In America” is the kind of movie that needs no critics. Its appeal is straight to the heart, and its aim is true, largely because it comes straight from the heart as well. It invites criticism only to the extent that it veers unwisely from emotional self-awareness to aesthetic self-consciousness. But the film’s pervading modesty and genuine feeling ultimately win out, making this one of the sleepers of the holiday season.
Directed by Jim Sheridan (“My Left Foot,” “In the Name of the Father,” “The Boxer”) and co-written with his two daughters, the film traces his semi-autobiographical narrative of an Irish family’s first year as immigrants in New York, sometime in the early 1980s. The father, Johnny (Paddy Considine), auditions for acting gigs by day and drives a cab by night, while the mother, Sarah (Samantha Morton), works in an ice cream parlor and their two little girls (Sarah and Emma Bolger, real-life sisters) adjust to life in the city. Ariel, like her namesake, is an airy spirit who immediately beguiles everyone in their seedy neighborhood. Her older sister, Christy, is quieter, more guarded and watchful, taking in everything – frequently through the red Camcorder she totes everywhere – before registering any reaction. She, as much as her father, may be a stand-in for Sheridan himself; the story is recounted from her perspective.
Therein lies its charm. Something about Christy’s quaint gravity, her utterly convincing mixture of faith and skepticism, strikes exactly the right note for this film, which otherwise might have fallen prey to either schmaltz or joyless naturalism. For it becomes apparent right from the start that the family’s outlook is far from rosy. They’re illegal immigrants. They have no money. They live in a dilapidated tenement inhabited primarily by junkies and derelicts. Worst of all, they are haunted by the recent death of Christy and Ariel’s younger brother, Frankie, a tragedy which still grips their everyday lives-especially their father’s – and continually threatens to wreck their fragile attempts at a fresh start.
Yet framed through Christy’s eyes, their struggles take on the aspect of a secret adventure, a fairy tale that places even genuine pain and grief within the arc of what is literally a story of three magic wishes. Tellingly, a major motif within the film is “E.T.,” which the family squanders their savings on one sweltering summer day. After all, not only is “E.T.” the story of an alien in America; it’s also the ultimate childhood fable, the fulfillment of every child’s wildest fantasies and darkest fears. Sheridan channels this narrative of wish-fulfillment and fear into his own, letting it soften, without obscuring, the grim realities of Christy’s family’s life. “In America,” for all its seeming artlessness, is a carefully modulated film. Its tone is neither saccharine nor bleak, but bittersweet; as a potential tearjerker it’s remarkable for its subtlety and restraint.
Most of the time. Sheridan’s one misstep is his none-too-subtle use of the family’s neighbor, Mateo (Djimon Hounsou), as a Symbol with a capital “S.” A reclusive, mysterious artist who emits unaccountable screams of rage from behind a door inhospitably labeled “KEEP OUT,” Mateo ends up becoming the family’s best friend and a kind of saint in disguise. I don’t necessarily begrudge a film its Christ figure, but why, oh why, does it always have to be a black man whose chief function is to exorcise the guilt of the (white) protagonists by taking it on to himself? The “E.T.” theme is stretched to its limits here, as Mateo explicitly identifies himself with the displaced alien. What saves it, again, is the child’s perspective, which makes his instant transformation from vaguely menacing figure to good angel more believable, and Hounsou himself, whose physical and dramatic presence (underutilized since his striking debut in “Amistad”) endows the role with far more grace and dignity than it deserves.
His character also, however, brings to the fore the hints of artistic pretensions behind what at first glance appears a patently unpretentious, intensely personal work. At its best, “In America” touches our emotions without wringing them dry or making us quite aware of the technique behind it. It’s a tribute to Sheridan’s better directorial and personal instincts – and to his actors, who are uniformly good – that we may leave the theater with tears in our eyes. The tears feel real, and they’re well earned.