In America

Reviewed By John Rice
Posted 08/06/04 16:14:34

"Refinement of a classic American theme."
3 stars (Just Average)

The story of a family coming to the U.S. to find a new life is far from new. The basic idea has been seen in films ranging from "The Godfather" to "Fiddler on the Roof", so the premise behind "In America" is hardly new territory. Fortunately, Jim Sheridan's autobiographical tale, which mixes stories from his own family's arrival in the U.S. with an incident from his youth brings just enough originality to make it interesting.

2003 saw a flood of fact based movies, the most popular of which is probably Jim Sheridan's (My Left Foot) In America. The story is co-written by Sheridan and his two daughters Naomi and Kirsten about their arrival in the U.S. from Ireland in 1983. Sheridan's onscreen persona is named Johnny and he and his wife Sarah (Samantha Morton) with their daughters Christy and Ariel (Sarah and Emma Bolger) cross the border from Canada. Johnny is an actor who is expecting to get a job on a television show. A job which falls through.

The family moves into a run down apartment building, in an apartment which has broken windows and is full of birds. Being resourceful and determined, the family cleans up and paints the apartment, gets a previously unusable shower functioning, more or less, and even installs an air conditioner. Unfortunately, the air conditioner has the wrong kind of plug on it and Johnny replaces it with one that fits the wall socket. Of course, things aren't always quite that simple and the family's dreams, as well as the air conditioner, don't go as smoothly as hoped.

Johnny can't find acting work, no matter how able he seems to be and Sarah barely gets them by working at a local ice cream parlor. Gradually, they make friends with some of their less dangerous neighbors, all of which is documented by older daughter Sarah on her video camera. The constant gamble the family takes in pursuit of their dreams is rather blatantly reflected in Johnny's insistence on gambling every cent the family has trying to win a doll from a street vendor.

Eventually Sarah becomes pregnant and develops complications, leading to extensive hospital stays and the resulting medical bills. An already stressed situation becomes even more dire and the family soldiers on with their usual strength. Needless to say, everything works out in the end,

In America has been highly touted by many viewers and critics. Maybe I am missing something, or maybe I have just seen this same basic story too many times, but I was mostly unmoved. Sheridan included a story line from early in his life which I think may have been best left out. While I understand it had a profound effect on him and I can understand his wanting to include it in the story, it felt a little like emotional piling on. It simply felt like he was taking the obstacles faced by the family a little further than they really needed to be.

In fact, so many common themes were put into In America, it almost started to feel like a more typical, calculated Hollywood effort. The entire apartment building is brought together by the family. A group which was originally a bunch of drug addicts becomes a cohesive, peaceful one. A severely depressed and seemingly violent artist (Djimon Hounsou) who has "Keep Away" painted on his door becomes a warm, loving and trusted friend. In the end, it all adds up to just a bit too much.

To be fair, the acting is universally wonderful. Paddy Considine is perfectly measured as Johnny. Samantha Morton, who is one of the truly great, mostly unrecognized actresses of our time, takes on yet another unique role with her usual tact. Djimon Hounsou is initially intimidating and eventually caring as the artist Mateo. The real find though is Sarah Bolger as Christy, who is joined by real sister Emma as the two daughters. There is something downright remarkable and piercing about Sarah Bolger, which I can't quite put my finger on. She has a face and power of expression that simply seem to make time stop, so I suppose it is only fitting the movie ends with her not only looking directly at the viewer, but also addressing them. For me, the final couple of minutes, and especially this final shot, were the high point of the movie.

This review originally appeared on

"In America" is a moving, if a bit predictable story.

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