The main character in In America (2003), by the Irish writer-director Jim Sheridan, is Johnny (Paddy Considine), an actor from Dublin who brings his family – his wife Sarah (Samantha Morton) and his daughters Christy (Sarah Bolger – The Tudors) and Ariel (Emma Bolger) – to Manhattan after his son Frankie dies of a brain tumor caused by a fall down the stairs. The screenplay, which Sheridan wrote with his own daughters Naomi and Kirsten, is a sort of autobiographical collage. Sheridan and his wife Fran emigrated to New York, put in their time in a tough neighborhood like Hell’s Kitchen – where Johnny and Sarah bring their girls in In America – and Fran gave birth prematurely, just as Sarah does late in the film. But the lost child in real like, Frankie Sheridan, was Jim Sheridan’s kid brother and not his son, and the Sheridan character in the movie is really Christy, the older daughter, who tells the story in voice-over and who walks around with a Camcorder, preserving her family and her impressions of her new environment on videotape. No doubt the fact that so many of the incidents in the film are inspired by Sheridan’s own experiences enhances its authenticity, but his movies are almost unfailingly genuine, and he doesn’t seem capable of a banal impulse. In America is as wondrously unconventional for a coming-to-America movie as My Left Foot was for a triumph-of-the-spirit drama or In the Name of the Father for a prison picture. Not a single sequence in it looks like anything else you’ve ever seen.
Here’s an example. Fed up with the heat of their first New York summer, Johnny purchases a second-hand air conditioner and hauls it up the staircase in their sweltering walk-up; as he teeters past one of his neighbors, who’s fanning herself languidly, she reaches out toward him and fans a little cool air onto his face. This modicum of neighborly compassion represents all she can do for him; the gesture is both touching and comic. But when he levels the outsize machine onto his windowsill, he discovers that he needs a converter to plug it in. He tries to buy one at a local store, but he’s a few pennies short (he hasn’t been able to land a part; they’re living on Sarah’s salary from waitressing at an ice cream shop called Heaven), and the clerk won’t trust him for the change, because junkies are a bad investment and Johnny lives in a building riddled with junkies, so it’s likely he’s one himself. Sarah rounds up enough empty soda bottles to make up the difference, and Johnny gets his converter. But the air conditioner is an impractical monster. When they turn it on, it eats up so much of the current that the whole building shorts out and it plunges into darkness. The family winds up at the movies, where the air conditioning works.
|Director Jim Sheridan|
|Sarah Bolger, Paddy Considine & Emma Bolger|
|Emma Bolger & Djimon Hounsou|
The intensely personal, exquisitely particularized In America affects us in ways that most filmmakers couldn’t conceive of. Every scene in it is charged with feeling, as in a great De Sica film or Scorsese’s Mean Streets. Sheridan begins and ends with the emotions of his characters – presented in all their messy complexity, not emblematically. His four main actors (including the real-life sisters, Sarah and Emma Bolger) behave so convincingly like a family that, experientially, the movie starts where many domestic dramas wind up. The two girls are remarkable, and the work of the amazingly intuitive Samantha Morton and the Irish stage actor Paddy Considine confirms Sheridan’s reputation as one of the three or four most gifted actor’s directors in movies. Sarah’s upbeat attitude conceals her own grief and guilt over Frankie’s death; she’s afraid that her husband has never forgiven her for not being there when the child tumbled downstairs, and she’s the one who keeps begging him to pretend he’s happy for the kids’ sake, but when she elects to have another baby, we see the depth of her own misery. Johnny carries his mournfulness around in his deep-set, tragic eyes. The way the script is constructed, Considine has to hoist the bulk of the film, and he does it.
|Samantha Morton & Paddy Considine|
The movie has one of those endings you feel you’ll remember all your life. Johnny brings Sarah and the baby home from the hospital, but Ariel is stricken that Mateo left them without saying goodbye. So Johnny takes the girls out onto the fire escape to look at the moon, and with his imaginative guidance they’re able to see Mateo riding across the moon like E.T. on Elliott’s bicycle. As they shout their farewells, the girls ask him to look after their dead brother, and Christy – asking silently for her third wish – urges Johnny to say goodbye to Frankie, too. And finally he can. The emotional effort frees him to cry for his dead son for the first time – to feel again. As Sarah folds herself in her father’s arms, we see images of the dead: first Mateo and then Frankie months or perhaps weeks before he died, on her Camcorder. But then she switches it off, explaining to us in voice-over that “it’s not the way I want to see Frankie anymore.” Her last line is a killer:
Do you still have a picture of me in your head? Well, that’s like the picture I want to have of Frankie. The one that you can keep in your head forever. So when you go back to reality, I’ll ask Frankie . . . to please, please – let me go.
This speech brings the idea of In America as Christy’s movie full circle, shifting the struggle of letting go of Frankie from Johnny to Christy. We realize, finally, that her communication with her dead brother – the wishes – weren’t just magic; they’ve been a burden. Frankie has been her ghost as well as Johnny and Sarah’s, and she can’t go on with her life until he frees her.
– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review, The Boston Phoenix and The Christian Century and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.