Running Time: 107 mins
Not long ago, a friend in publishing confided to me, "We urge our writers to leverage their own experience, to write what they know best. We hope they will find passion in the experiences which are dearest to them. But what we get back is mostly wretched memoirs." I asked what seemed the obvious follow up, "Why then do you keep encouraging them in this vein?". Her reply: "Because every once in a while, you get something that just blows you away."
Jim Sheridan's In America is one of those "once in a whiles." This is a stunning, heart-wrenching account of an Irish family - the story is largely autobiographical and written with the help of Sheridan's two daughters - and their attempt to make it in America. The film chronicles the make-believe Sheridans as they illegally cross the Canadian border to set up house in a squalid tenement building in Manhattan in the early 1980s. Johnny (Considine) and Sarah (Morton) have two daughters, Christy and Ariel, and all of them are working to get over the death of the little brother, Frankie (in reality, Sheridan lost not a child, but a brother, Frankie Sheridan). The daughters are wonderfully played by real-life sisters Sarah and Emily Bolger. It is worth the ticket to see these young and very talented actors perform.
On its surface, In America is an urban fairy tale (if one with adult language and situations). A family becomes lost in a new and strange world and journeys to find themselves in it. Along the way, an unexpected kind of magic happens, and this magic transforms them. And, thankfully, without the treacly sentimentality that typically plagues this kind of story. Well, without too much of it anyway. In an arresting performance, Djimon Hounsou manages to be both the troll under the bridge and the fairy godmother, all wrapped up in one angry, downstairs neighbor, a painter called Mateo.
At a deeper level, In America is an immigrants' parable, an outsider's tale. When the girls are awarded a "special prize" for their homemade Halloween costumes - a holiday their Irish parents know little about - Christy cynically observes to her younger sister that, "They gave us a prize because they felt sorry for us." When Johnny counters it is not pity but merely a recognition that they are different, Christy responds fiercely: "We don't want to be different. We want to fit in." From this perspective, the immigrants' dilemma seems not unlike adolescence. And in Sheridan's wonderfully complex allegory, this dilemma also parallels grief, mortality and the search for love. I cannot help but mention that in this same scene, Christy offers a keen and highly entertaining insight into American culture interpreted through the aggressive demands inherent in the Halloween practice of "Trick or Treat."
Sheridan apparently sent an early draft of the screenplay to his two daughters to see how it mapped to their own memories of the family's time in New York. It was a story of a father's struggle to overcome his grief, to provide a home for his family and to make it in New York as an actor. The daughters, in their turn, rewrote the script and sent it back. Sheridan has explained in numerous interviews that they had written the father's role entirely out of the film. In their own memories, there father was mostly absent. The catharsis for the Sheridans that was surely a part of this process is very present in the film. The fusion of the two drafts evokes a wonderful story of the entire family.
Harden Grace is an Associate of the Australian Catholic Film Office.