(Originally posted on 12/19/03)
Jim Sheridan's In America comes so close to greatness that it's incredibly frustrating to see it stumble in its final moments. Based on the acclaimed writer/director's own experiences, the film focuses on married Irish couple Johnny (Paddy Considine) and Sarah (Samantha Morton) who, along with their two precocious daughters Christy (Sarah Bolger) and Ariel (Emma Bolger), move from Ireland to NYC to start a new life. With little money to their names, the family takes up residence in a decrepit Manhattan apartment building brimming with drug addicts and transvestites. Johnny, a struggling actor, and Sarah, a teacher forced to work as a waitress at a nearby ice cream parlor, have recently lost their son Frankie in an accident, and the child's absence haunts their every thought. Sheridan's film basically ignores period detail -- although the film is presumably set in the early '80s (since the family goes to see E.T. in the theater), Christie's camcorder and the film's version of Times Square are straight out of 2003 -- but superbly evokes the depression, anxiety, joy, misery, and aggravation of family life. Considine brings a frazzled, shell-shocked fearsomeness to his performance, beautifully turning his wounded father into the walking dead. He's ably matched by the unassuming Morton, whose Sarah is a jumble of wide-eyed fragility, wounded reserve, and repressed sorrow. Yet both are overshadowed by the Bolger sisters, who, as Christie and Ariel, exhibit an unaffected, child-like innocence and bravery that never veers into the robotically mawkish, creepily eloquent mugging practiced by kid actors like Dakota Fanning.
The family members' interaction with each other exudes a natural familiarity and vibrancy that amplifies the film's charming anecdotal scenes (such as when Johnny brings home an air conditioner in the midst of a heat wave). A subplot involving the family befriending a reclusive artist dying of AIDS (the superb Djimou Hounsou) is handled with grace, but Sheridan proves not quite up to the task of ending his film with the requisite delicacy. Intent on providing the tortured Johnny with some small measure of closure, the film becomes facile by allowing Johnny to heal himself by "saying goodbye" to his dead son. Although it's not meant to be taken literally, the moment falters because it provides an emotional climax that's too neat for a film that so vividly captures the anarchic ups and downs of struggling to keep a family united in the face of misfortune. Still, if I found In America's last 60 seconds slightly off-key, it doesn't diminish the melodious first hour and a half. Sheridan's story is a wonderful tribute to the country and city that allowed him to realize his dreams, and stands as a testament to the painful but rewarding process of releasing the grief and regret wrought by the tragedies that pockmark our lives.