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American dream 

In America believes in magic not mawkishness

The family drama In America may be the best holiday movie ever made that has nothing to do with the holidays. Director Jim Sheridan puts so much talk of wishes and spirits alongside such loving depictions of seasonal change in New York City that In America may as well take place at Christmas, even though it never mentions it. The film has such a glow that, whenever a bell rings, you wait for an angel to get its wings.

In America may be built on sweetness and sentiment, but it avoids sugar-coating or safety nets. Sheridan roots the story in genuine hardships from his own life, and the sincerity of his cast reach deep feelings without taking too many maudlin shortcuts.

Sheridan co-wrote In America with his own daughters, Naomi and Kirsten, and dedicates the film to the memory of his late brother, Frankie. Paddy Considine plays Johnny, Sheridan's alter ego, who's married to Sarah (Samantha Morton) and has two daughters, Christy and Ariel (played by real sisters Sarah and Emma Bolger). Like Sheridan, Johnny brings his family from Ireland to New York, where he struggles to become a stage actor.

When the family goes through customs at the U.S./Canadian border, Johnny oddly announces they have three children. We discover that their son Frankie has died, but his absence haunts the family like a wound that won't heal. Christy, who narrates the film, even reports conversations with her absent brother.

Much of In America is seen through the sisters' eyes over the course of a year. Like Hope and Glory's joyous account of wartime London, the childlike perspective makes dangerous adult experiences seem exotic. When the family moves into a decaying brownstone, the girls are delighted to find a flock of pigeons living in their apartment and view the neighborhood junkies like untamed zoo animals.

Johnny looms the largest in their lives, and he inspires both devotion and worry. He seems forever spoiling for a fight, and when his Irish family nearly melts in New York's summer humidity, he drags a second-hand air conditioner home through traffic. Later, at a street festival, he risks their savings on a cheap midway game of skill, but when Sarah quietly encourages his foolhardy wager, you're not sure whether to be touched or alarmed by her support of her husband.

In America frequently builds to such ambivalent moments, and Morton and Considine both excel at showing how the parents struggle to process conflicted feelings. At one point, Johnny plays a kind of Blind Man's Bluff with his giggling girls, but stops and looks up with a stunned, defeated expression. "I was looking for Frankie," he says, blindsided by grief all over again. When Sarah becomes pregnant, she believes she has a chance to make up for Frankie's loss, even though it requires huge risks.

Throughout In America Sheridan flirts with mawkishness, without going all the way. His song choices particularly lack subtlety. The family arrives in neon-spangled Times Square as an oldies radio station plays "Do You Believe in Magic." Later in the film some health concerns come to a head as "Turn! Turn! Turn!" plays on the soundtrack.

Sarah Bolger has a sweet moment singing the Eagles' "Desperado" at a school play, but the song itself is a confusing choice. It may support Sheridan's repeated assertion that Johnny has lost touch with his feelings -- but if anything, the character seems to feel too much, his son's death having cut his emotional brakes.

But even when characters wait for real miracles and the film threatens to become a melodrama, In America feels like an honest attempt to transform personal experience into accessible art. Its brushes with the supernatural feel more like magic realism than Hollywood hokum, and when the moon fills the sky to shine on a family catharsis, In America earns its wings.

curt.holman@creativeloafing.com

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