[Screen It]

(2003) (Paddy Considine, Samantha Morton) (PG-13)

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Drama: An Irish family tries to make ends meet, understand the customs of their new land and deal with a past tragedy when they immigrate to New York City.
Johnny (PADDY CONSIDINE) and Sarah (SAMANTHA MORTON) are an Irish couple who've decided to immigrate to New York City with their daughters, Christy (SARAH BOLGER) and Ariel (EMMA BOLGER). The family is still reeling from the recent death of their young son, Frankie, with Sarah wanting another baby and Johnny having withdrawn into an emotionally distant state.

He's also frustrated that he can't get an acting job and must get by on others, while Sarah takes a job in an ice cream parlor rather than school where she belongs. The girls, meanwhile, are fascinated by the city's trappings, climate and culture. They're also intrigued by a neighbor known as "the man who screams." They eventually meet Mateo (DJIMON HOUNSOU), a muscle-bound artist with AIDS who's initially wary of the girls but quickly warms up to them and their parents.

Time passes and the family settles into their new home and surroundings with Sarah getting pregnant while Mateo's condition worsens. As all of that occurs, Christy tries to use the three wishes that she believes Frankie has granted her for the family situations that need them the most.

OUR TAKE: 7.5 out of 10
To those who've never gone through it or only dreamt of it from foreign countries, the immigrant experience of arriving in the U.S. probably looks easy and/or desirous. The truth is usually far from that, however, as reality disproves the notion of fame, fortune, freedom or at least a better life under the American Dream.

Director Jim Sheridan ("The Boxer," "My Left Foot") taps into his personal experience of being an immigrant to the U.S. during the 1980s in his somewhat fantastical drama, "In America." A completely engaging, moving and generally well-made effort, the film may suffer from a few flaws here and there, but its spirit is infectious. It's also one of the few films this year that really struck me (hardened cynic that I've become) on an unexpected emotional level.

Combining that personal immigrant experience with a familial loss from his childhood - the film is dedicated to his brother Frankie - Sheridan has crafted a part fictitious, part biographical work. As written by the filmmaker and his real daughters - Naomi (making her debut) and Kirsten ("Disco Pigs") - the work feels a bit like life. Some parts are funny, some sad and everything feels circumstantial.

While that gets the aura and feel right, it also generates an episodic nature when it comes to the plot, particularly as the family arrives in New York, sets up their home and then tries to fit it and understand their surroundings.

We witness the various trials and tribulations they face, such as the sweltering heat and humidity that the summer brings. That also generates a funny sequence of the father pulling a window unit air conditioner down the street, hauling it up who knows how many flights of stairs and going to plug it in, only to realize it has the wrong type of plug for the outlet.

Such trying developments, however, are small potatoes compared to the dark cloud that perpetually looms over their heads - the previous death of their young son - and is ready to let loose at any unexpected moment. While that and later developments - including a difficult pregnancy and a person suffering from AIDS - threaten to turn the entire effort into a maudlin, melodramatic and trying experience, the Sheridans manage to make it all work.

Much of that's due to the slightly fantastical nature of the piece. As narrated by the oldest daughter - Sarah Bolger ("A Love Divided") in a smashing take on the character - we hear that she believes her dead brother has granted her three wishes to use in helping her family. Although she begins with the old saying about being careful what you wish for, she isn't hesitant to doll them out when needed the most.

The result is charming and surprisingly moving, even when the filmmakers stumble a bit over a few missteps. Without giving away too much, a late in the game transference of souls development will push the limits of endurance for most cynics and even some average viewers, and really wasn't that necessary as it knocks down the walls of reality, no matter how fantastical they might have been.

Then there's the "magical Negro" element. It's not as blatant as in other films and probably not completely intentional. Yet, the fact that a black man - Djimon Hounsou ("The Four Feathers," "Gladiator") in an otherwise good performance - enters, infiltrates and eventually betters the family's life (as if by magic and his qualities are somewhat of the shaman nature) does reek of that bizarre but often still repeated plot device.

Aside from those few problems, however, the film mightily succeeds, thanks to a deft directorial touch, solid writing, terrific and natural performances from the cast, and a whole lot of heart. A scene where the father - Paddy Considine ("24 Hour Party People," "A Room For Romeo Brass") in a masterful performance - threatens to ruin the family's fortune and possible future just to win a carnival game stuffed toy for his youngest daughter is gripping, moving and sad in its intensity, potential for disaster and revelation of what makes his character tick.

Samantha Morton ("Minority Report," "Sweet and Lowdown") is wonderful as the mother who's similarly blocked out part of her grief - although not as much as the father - regarding their dead son. It's Sarah and her real life younger sister Emma Bolger (making her debut), however, who steal the show. About as natural an acting duo as one could hope for, the two are simply brilliant in their parts.

Despite a few problems including that episodic feel, some unnecessary developments and material, and the tendency to risk bursting nice emotional moments and thus spreading maudlin goo everywhere, the film worked quite well for me.

With a number of nice, touching and moving moments - such as Christy singing a version of The Eagles' "Desperado" during a montage sequence, an adult snowball fight and an introductory Halloween scene - and performances that feel credible and are constantly on the mark, "In America" might not be perfect. Yet, it entertained and moved me often enough to earn a recommendation and a rating of 7.5 out of 10.

Reviewed October 21, 2003 / Posted November 26, 2003

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