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In America


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In America
Jim Sheridan I 2003 I UK/USA
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Every once in a while there come films that because of their sheer optimism and honesty about life produce a glint of hope in the viewer. A perfect example would be Jim Sheridan's In America [his most auto-biographical work to date], a film that sneaks inside our dark heads and turns on a light. It is a film so passionate and true, yet so comical and tragic; a film that, in the most exact Capra spirit, creates a vast and proper sense of sanguinity amongst the most terrible circumstances. It is a very well-made picture that gives us a view on life unlike very few films do nowadays; a life with bad moments but where faith constantly remains.


It tells the story of an Irish family of four who migrate to Manhattan, in America. With only a few cents and in hope for a better life, they situate themselves in a marginal neighbourhood full of drug addicts and drag queens. Johnny and Sarah [Paddy Considine and Samantha Morton respectively] look for better jobs and one way or another try to reach the American Dream, while their two daughters [played by real life sisters Sarah and Emma Bolger] meet Mateo [Djimon Hounsou, whom we saw in Gladiator], a painter who is otherwise known as the man who screams and an individual who will do more than just one thing for the benefit of the family.


One of the central components that most impressed me was without a doubt the clear sense of buoyancy that constantly floated throughout the film. Not unlike De Sica's The Bicycle Thief [which the film often reminds us of], In America presents us an existence full of perils and problems -  the family are continually forced to face their innermost doubts and crises and it always looks like the difficulties will never cease to come. It is revealed very early on that Frankie, one of the parents' children, died not very long ago as a result of a brain tumour. The family have to cope with the saddening loss of their dear one, but the memories keep flooding in and still they're direly affected by the events. Johnny attempts to obtain a part in a play, but he fails. Sarah gets a job in a nearby diner, but the wages are too low. They have very little money, yet what could have been a miserable way of living is turned upside down by the two sisters, whose perseverance and innocent naivety somehow manage to be the family's foundations, the pillars upon which everything else is built. Thus, the optimism is crafted, and rather wonderfully at that. In an era where we're regularly being assaulted by films that are as artificial as they're pessimistic, In America comes off as an enchantingly refreshing experience, both because it's optimistic, and because it tells life like it is - or at least, like it should be.


In a scene that I loved, the family go to a fair after watching E.T. in the cinema. The littler of the two sisters catches sight of an E.T. doll that you can get as a prize if you get seven tennis balls inside the hole. However, if you miss once and you want to continue, you have to pay twice as much and so on. The father finally decides to have a go in order to please his daughter. The first three balls get inside the hole successfully, but in the fourth go, he misses. He then has to pay twice as much, but he misses; yet he decides to go again, solely to demonstrate to his daughters how much he's worth, because he doesn't want to disappoint them. And so on. In the end, having paid more than a hundred and sixty dollars and to the astonishment of the curious spectators, the father obtains the doll, and the two daughters yell in utter happiness. The scene, besides being admirably executed, constitutes one of the film's key moments where a message is given to the viewer. It tells us many things, out of which one stands out the most: with determination, one can get whatever he wishes for. And that is so true.


Looking at its technical aspects, one can immediately leap to the conclusion that they're all extremely well done. The performances are excellent: Samantha Morton, post-Minority Report, is great, both being able to portray a large collection of emotions while at the same time remaining meticulous throughout the film. Paddy Considine is in very fine form, as is Djmon Hounsou, whose acting abilities both startled and enthralled me, partly because the character he plays is a very rich one, [and all the better when he's well depicted] and because I would've thought that the role didn't suit him. Needless to say, I was wrong. The little two girls are, well, it's not easy to put into words because such is the tenderness that they radiate. Funny, delightful and sweet, they instantly charm the audience with their gullibility. The musical score is also very, very lovely as is the cinematography, whose restless hand-held camera provides the film with a heightened sense of realism. But it is Sheridan's experienced and splendid direction that makes the film work -  it must be said, however, that without one or two of the aforementioned elements the film would not have been the same; such is the effectiveness of them all.


To put it bluntly, In America is a fable. One simply has to look no further: the fairy outfit that one of the sisters wears on Halloween, the constant wish-asking that the other does to her brother, who is in heaven, the deliberate references and of course, the ending. The film is life observed from the eyes of a child [in this case, children], where apparently there are no boundaries or limits and where everything [hopefully] is going to be all right. But of course, in the life of a child there are many questions to be asked, and in one of the film's funniest scenes, Ariel asks what transvestites are to her elder sister, to which she answers that, "They're men who dress up as women." In doubt, she asks again, "For Halloween?"

In America is such a good film partly because it does what other films seldom talk about [or ignore]: God. The film is not anthropocentric, because it speaks about God, faith and the world that lies beyond like no other film has done. The family of the film are all devout Catholics: the two sisters go to a Catholic school, they say their prayers every night, and they trust that their late brother is up there. But there's an exception: as a cause of his sons death, Johnny cursed God and swore to him that he'd never cry again. The film deals with the man's spiritual recovery, thus teaching more than one lesson.


Alike every single film, In America has flaws, even though they're not for the detriment of the film. If there was one thing that I did not like it was the sex scene between the parents -  while I was able to understand the director's intentions, I thought it was merely unnecessary, redundant, though far from gratuitous. And one often wonders whether normal parents would really let their daughters go out on their own around a neighbourhood full of junkies and strange people - then again, it is a fable, isn't it?


Without optimism, we're nothing. In America tell us this and countless other things, with sincerity and with a rare sense of magic, breaking our heart and putting it together again. Because the film is optimistic, because it is truthful and simple, the more it is to be admired. Jim Sheridan proves to be a natural born storyteller; he has a story, he knows how to tell it and he knows how to end it. Uplifting, emotional, deeply moving and amusing, In America is a parable that speaks about the power of love, family, God and self-sacrifice -  things that, in the end, prove to be the ones that most matter.




Reviewed by Pablo Hernandez, 2004