In America

Directed by Jim Sheridan
Written by Jim Sheridan, Naomi Sheridan, Kirsten Sheridan
Starring Samantha Morton, Paddy Considine, Sarah Bolger, Emma Bolger
Classification: 14A
Rating: ***

Back in Ireland, they were a loving family of five, but Frankie died before his third birthday, and his death drove them away -- first to Canada, then across the border and now, in this opening scene, into the murk of the Lincoln Tunnel. There, the radio cuts out in their battered car, until they reach the light at the tunnel's end when, from the darkness, Manhattan emerges in all its towering might and, from the silence, the radio springs back to life with the joyful noise of Do You Believe in Magic?.

Well, do you? If so, you'll adore the magic realism of In America. Director Jim Sheridan has dusted off the usual immigrant's tale and polished it into the high shine of a fable. But a grownup fable, where dark mixes with bright, sadness with laughter, new-world rawness with old-world blarney, and where the unabashed sentimentality of the story manipulates you in a direction that's awfully tough to resist -- to a more-or-less happy ending, the kind that has hope winning a split decision over despair. Better still, the cast features two of the most engaging little girls ever to grace the silver screen, and they come with a flat-out guarantee: The hardest of hearts will melt before them.

In his best-known films to date -- My Left Foot and In the Name of the Father -- Sheridan has shown himself partial to the subject of real-life folks waging an ongoing battle with adversity. Here, he has essentially turned his camera inwards to create a loosely autobiographical (or, if you prefer, quasi-fictional) account of his own family's gallant struggle, their coming-to-America odyssey. To broaden the perspective, Sheridan recruited his now-grown daughters to add their recollections to the script, and that bit of nepotism proves as wise as it is generous -- the children's not-quite-innocent eye (naive yet resilient) gives the picture a vital and poignant boost.

The chronicle starts as the four settle into their squalid digs -- the top floor of a junkies' tenement in Hell's Kitchen. Dad (Paddy Considine) is an aspiring actor making the audition rounds; Mom (Samantha Morton) earns a meagre income toiling in a local candy shop; 10-year old Christy (Sarah Bolger) is serious and contemplative, a quiet observer of the changing scene; her younger sister Ariel (Sarah's younger sister Emma) is a spritely chatterbox, inquisitive and amiable. Their natures are very different, but the burden they carry is the same -- the spectre of Frankie's death hovers over them all, a trailing shadow that refuses to leave or to lighten.

The fable that follows is an episodic, anecdotal ramble through the shadow's recesses. As in most fables, the imagery is pagan and theatrically inflated. So New York's climate is a study in the seasons' extremes, with thunder and lightning and searing heat giving way to numbing cold. At one point, Johnny the father becomes a playful ogre pursuing his squealing daughters with a mock-terrible cry of "Fe-fi-fo-fum, I smell the blood of an Irishwoman." Sarah the mother is a heavy-breasted fertility goddess, seducing her husband and growing swollen with child -- a troubled pregnancy that promises new life even as it threatens her own. Finally, the costumed girls go trick-or-treating on Halloween and encounter in a neighbouring apartment a giant black man (Djimon Hounsou), a sullen painter whose art is primitive and whose intentions are ambiguous -- is he a bona fide monster or a fairy godfather in muscular disguise?

All this is the oversized stuff of legend and acts as the magic in the fable, which Sheridan shrewdly treats with his own brand of calculated ambiguity, sliding from the comic to the serious and back again. But the script also contains its bedrock of realism, a psychological realism that infuses the sentimentality and gives the picture its depth of feeling. Unable to shake his grief, Johnny slides into despondency, thereby losing a talent that's essential for actors and fathers alike -- the capacity for "make-believe," the skill to play to his audience from behind the wall of pretend. Meanwhile, Sarah is also fighting an internal tug of war, between the one baby growing so precariously within her and the other who disappeared so tragically without her -- both invisible, both palpable.

Watching their parents, always watching, the girls know more than they let on. Tiny Ariel hides amid her incessant chatter, just occasionally allowing her loneliness to peer through. The more mature Christy keeps her counsel, convinced that her self-contained strength is the one bond holding the family together. But watch for a lovely sequence where she speaks indirectly through song: It's a school concert, the fragile girl on stage accompanied only by piano, singing with stoic determination a plaintive rendition of Desperado. That tug you will surely feel is a tear jerking free.

Both the adult principals are superb; their understated acting neatly counterpoints the overstated themes. And forgive me for suggesting that the key to their performance lies in their hair -- Morton's is severely cropped, as close to her scalp as her emotions are to her vest; Considine's is spiky and flyaway, poised to wander off in ill-fated directions he can't predict or control. Of course, their characters are carried through the ordeal by their surviving children, which means that the Bolger sisters must similarly carry the entire picture. And they bring it off beautifully, thanks to a naturalness that Sheridan must have directed with painstaking care -- there's nothing precocious or arch about their on-camera presence. Here, then, magic and realism meld: The kids do instinctively what the pros can only forge -- they act naturally.

In the end, is In America slight in its sentimentality and manipulative in its moral? Sure, but that's the job of any fable or myth: To remind us of the truism that life is, after all, restorative; that death may have its dominion but not over birth's inextinguishable fuse. A child dies, a child is born, and, in his moving final frame, Sheridan insists that neither can be forgotten -- we must look hard at both to believe in the magic.

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