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November 25, 2003 2:00 AM
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A Tearjerker That Earns Its Tears; Jim Sheridan's "In America"

A Tearjerker That Earns Its Tears; Jim Sheridan's "In America"

by Peter Brunette










Paddy Considine, Emma Bolger, Samantha Morton, and Sarah Bolger in Jim Sheridan's "In America."

Barry Wetcher/Courtesy of Fox Searchlight

Some will dismiss Jim Sheridan's latest effort, which carries the working title "In America," as merely a tearjerker, but they will be wrong. This autobiographical film about a poor Irish family trying to make it in contemporary New York does end up jerking plenty of tears, to be sure, but the tears, somehow, feel well-earned. The director of such classics as "My Left Foot" and "In the Name of the Father" shows himself here to be at the height of his storytelling powers, and if the film ultimately relies, once you probe the surface, on some stock characters and some familiar situations, both are well disguised by innovative scriptwriting and some brilliant performances.

Johnny (Paddy Considine) and Sarah (Samantha Morton) arrive in New York virtually penniless, with their two daughters, 10-year-old Christy (Sarah Bolger) and seven-year-old Ariel (Emma Bolger), in tow. The story is mostly told from Christy's point of view through her voiceover, and a few scattered scenes are relayed through her video camera as well. Early on she tells us that she has asked Frankie, who is in heaven, to look out for this often feckless family, but it isn't until 30 minutes into the film that we find out that Frankie is their little brother who has died in an accident, casting the family into a deep crisis. The plucky Irish foursome sets up in a junkie's haven slum in Manhattan, and, while remodeling their dump of an apartment, trying to make a living, attempting to survive a humid New York summer by installing an air conditioner, and making new acquaintances in this improbable neighborhood, they meet a fearsome black man, Mateo (Djimon Hounsou, from "Amistad" and "Gladiator"). He's a struggling artist with some serious problems of his own who soon becomes a close family friend. Mateo's and the family's fortunes take many turns, including some serious medical ones, but by the end -- and this will be no surprise to anyone -- all is happily resolved.

Written by Sheridan and his two daughters, Kirsten and Naomi, the film's narrative thrust is cleverly modulated throughout, to the point that it occasionally (but only very occasionally) slackens. The 1980s movie "E.T." provides a running motif, and we come to understand the appositeness of this motif to the family's situation, since they too feel like outsiders in this strange new land. Moments of explication and plot points are doled out like rare pieces of gold and, for a feel-good movie, you have to pay lots of attention, which of course is all to the good. And if the lovable characters of the improvident Irish Dad (God be praised, he's not a drunk), the protective, long-suffering Mother, the ultra-cute kids, and the scary black man with the heart of gold are ultimately based on stereotypes, the viewer's actual experience of the characters -- probably because so much of the movie is based on Sheridan's own experiences as an immigrant in America -- is anything but cliched. The writers also have a nose for powerful scene writing, and some of the emotional encounters will stick with you for a long time. The dialogue is funny and authentic, as when little Ariel questions her older sister about why the American national anthem starts with "Jose, can you see?" The iconography is also unusually fresh, given the over-familiar visual terms in which Manhattan is usually treated, and the family's joyful entrance into the grandeur of the city is delightfully realized.

The next thing to say about the film is that the acting is beyond reproach. Samantha Morton's work is always a revelation, of course. Even better, here she seems content to play a strong second fiddle to Johnny, the character on whom the film's emotional turns principally center. Considine is always completely believable as the wannabe actor who's lost his ability to feel anything and, probably even more important in a movie like this one, he's always completely charming as well. Hounsou turns what could have been an offensive character (the scary black guy who, of course, only seems scary to white people) into a warm and wise human being. But pride of place must be awarded to the amazing Bolger sisters, who can be cute, mature, playful, patient, touching, and rebellious all at once. They are the heart and soul of this film, and big things are in store for both of them.

"In America" is a weepie, sure, and one that brings to the screen seemingly every crisis that can befall a young family. But it's so freshly told and so effervescently realized that even hard-bitten critics won't resent their tears.

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