In the course of viewing “In America,” if you do not feel the hint of a tear — be it for happiness or sadness — then movies, in general, might not be for you. Sheridan’s depiction of an Irish family immigrating to New York City in the 1980s is sure to draw you through their joyful triumphs and horrifying trials.
The movie opens at the U.S.-Canadian border with Sarah and Johnny Sullivan trying to make it across the border to find work and start a new life with their daughters young, extroverted Ariel and older, quieter Christi. Christi’s narration, present throughout the film, shows that the Sullivan family has recently lost a baby, Frankie, yet the details of his death only slowly emerge during the course of the movie. From the beginning it is apparent that Sheridan’s beautifully drawn Irish family is looking for rebirth in America as much as escape from the death as from its life in Canada.
The family finds a broken-down apartment in New York, full of people of life’s lowest denominator but impassioned with history. One such tenant is hermit painter Mateo (Dijimon Hounsou) who is dying of AIDS and befriends Ariel and Christi. While Johnny looks for work as an actor, Sarah works in an ice cream parlor, and Ariel and Christi begin attending Catholic school.
Sheridan’s film becomes a collage of his characters’ experiences during their search for a peace they have not known since Frankie died. Johnny (Paddy Considine) and Sarah (Samantha Morton) become vivid and real as the talented actors behind the characters use subtlety of expression and presence in their every moment on screen. Sheridan chooses to put his characters in germane circumstances, and, in doing so, brings immense realism to the movie. One example is a beautifully choreographed scene in which Paddy spends a hot summer afternoon trying to get an air conditioner into the apartment. Behind the commonplace experiences, the Sullivan family is one trying to regain its heart, lost with the baby Frankie. In those moments when it is most obvious between Johnny and Sarah how they struggle with the weight and guilt of their son’s death, their pain seems to echo on the faces of the audience.
Amazingly, Sheridan’s sobering realism provides us with as many grimaces as smiles. In one scene, Christi and Ariel are sent down to the ice cream parlor while Johnny and Sarah do what husbands and wives do. Christi concludes in dry, blunt narration, “And that was the moment the baby was conceived.”
As Mateo opens up and plays a growing role in the family’s reclamation of life, the characters only grow stronger and evoke our sympathies at their trials and reverence of the bonds that keep them light of humor. Sheridan’s contrasting of Mateo’s decline toward death and the family’s growth toward new life is, rightly, both tragic and inspiring. At one point the dying Mateo tells the as-yet unhealed Johnny to not be afraid to look at life again. The pure realities coming from the unlikeliest of sources is just one more way Sheridan makes you care about this family and its end.
Sheridan’s hold over his viewers is ever apparent. In one scene at a fair Johnny puts down a few dollars to throw a ball in a hole five times and win an E.T. doll for Ariel. The game is double the money, get another chance to get the prize and all your money back. Johnny needs only to get one more ball in, but soon he finds himself putting hundreds of dollars on the table, and Sarah even gives him the rent money: the lives of Ariel and Christi are suddenly on the line for a game, and the Sullivans are welcomed to America.
Impossible to express in words, Sheridan has crafted a subtle beauty that squeezes the heart long after one exits the theater. The ending is at the same time magnificent and too perfect, but perhaps Sheridan’s film is deserving of such an end.