Sentimental but engaging family drama easily carried by it's two young stars.
Jim Sheridan's directorial eye has been at rest since 1997's The Boxer, and here he returns with a semi-autobiographical account of a young Irish family beset by tragedy beginning a new life in the States. Paddy Considine plays Johnny and Samantha Morton his wife Sarah, a young Irish couple with two young daughters Christy and Ariel (played with astonishing skill by real life sisters Sarah and Emma Bolger) who have recently lost their young son Frankie. In an effort to start a new life they up sticks and head for New York where they take residence in a run-down apartment block populated by various unsavoury sorts. The stage is set fairly early on for a weepy tear-jerker of a movie, and to be honest I wasn't holding out much hope of staying awake for the duration. Thankfully I was proven quite wrong as this tale of triumph over adversity and blah blah blah turns out to be quite the involving drama, imbued as it is with genuine warmth and heart, and two outstanding turns from the engaging young Bolger sisters.
Initially the happy family, cracks begin to appear on the surface of Johnny and Sarah's relationship as the weight of the former's misplaced guilt over the death of his son causes increasing friction with his wife's desire to move on and build their new home. It's nothing we haven't seen before, but In America's trump card is in viewing the events largely from the perspective of the two children; a move that, given the magnetism of it's two young players, proves an extremely wise choice.
Which is not to say the kids entirely steal the picture. Paddy Considine is excellent as the grieving father, beginning the movie as a determined, focussed young father before gradually coming apart at the seams. An early scene that sees him trying to win the girls an ET toy at a fairground stand that involves doubling his stake with each attempt is a genuinely painful watch indicative of his desire to be a strong father for his children. By the time he's held at knifepoint by a junkie in the final reel, however, the rot has taken hold and his near-psychotic response to his assailant shows a man finally at breaking point coming apart at the seams.
Morton is unfortunately underused, though this is to be expected in some respects given the writer's personal investment in the character of Johnny and the child-focussed narrative. Her performance is nonetheless competent, if a little low-key, and throughout she feels very much like a peripheral character. Perhaps the most unexpected turn is that of Djimon Hounsou as Mateo, a frightening chap first introduced as "The Screaming Man". A resident of the family's apartment block, Mateo is a reclusive artist whose outbursts of yelling at all hours have imbued him with a near mythical sense of foreboding by the time the girls decide to trick or treat him on Halloween. Initial fears for the girl's safety soon give way after Mateo is revealed to be softer than the centre of a cooked marshmallow, although his innocent interest in the girls soon begins to undermine Johnny's sense of worth as a father, a feeling further nurtured by Mateo's growing friendship with Sarah.
It's at this point that Johnny begins to alienate himself the most from his family, with the middle reels carrying the greatest weight of emotional drama. Ironically, it's the revelation that Mateo's love of Johnny's family stems from his imminent demise from an unnamed disease that puts the young Irish man back on the road to emotional recovery himself, coupled with the news that Sarah is again expecting a child. Unfortunately for the movie, the second half is nowhere near as strong as the first, weighing itself down in an increasingly emotional quagmire. Fortunately for Sheridan, enough buoyancy is provided by his engaging players to keep it afloat and maintain sufficient audience interest amongst the occasionally dangerous levels of schmaltz.
And so to the movie's main talking point, the sisters Bolger and in particular the younger half Emma. Without a doubt the movie's single biggest ace and the one factor that raises this way above many other emotional dramas of this ilk, young Sarah and Emma are every bit the revelation the hype would suggest. As the adults occasionally struggle with the odd bit of sappy dialogue here and there, our two prodigious young players cruise through their roles with unbelievable levels of grace and natural ability as if they didn't even realise they were in a film. There's no pretentious posturing from spoilt little brats here, just two truly honest and utterly compelling turns that make that little Osment chap's performance in The Sixth Sense look like a botched audition for a third rate horror movie. Even hardened movie-goers like myself raised on a diet of John Woo and Die Hard will find it near impossible to resist the charm of quiet young Sarah and her fearless Tazmanian Devil of a little sister, and I challenge any man not to feel a little fatherly after watching their performance here.
Whether or not In America represents as much Oscar fodder as some people seem to think is highly debatable. The fact that it is carried a long, long way on the strength of four great performances belies the truth that underneath it's a little weak. The pacing lags in later sections as an emotional swamp begins to form around several unfortunate events, and the scripting is a little too sentimental a little too much of the time. All things considered though, what's there is eminently easy to enjoy and more than engaging enough to warrant second inspection. Certainly not up there with Sheridan's earlier staue-grabber My Left Foot, but engaging and worthwhile nonetheless. And as for those daughters? You'll be asking where you can get a pair.
Craig Disko has awarded this movie 4 out of 5 Fab Weasels.
Samantha Morton (Sarah)
Djimon Hounsou (Mateo)
Sarah Bolger (Christy)
Emma Bolger (Aeriel)