Here is a movie that so badly wants you to cry and to feel the heartbreak of emotionally stunted characters and to bask in their eventual breakthroughs that I did my damnedest to resist it. In America is one of the most shamelessly manipulative art-house movies you’ll ever find.
Jim Sheridan, who directed the film and co-wrote it with his two daughters, knows this. So he tweaks the movie just enough to justify the maudlin content. The result is a mass of contradictions that works surprisingly well.
In America is heavy-handed, obvious in its metaphors, and resolute in its belief that everything will turn out all right in the end. It’s also beautifully performed, and it subtly invokes fantasy to turn its flaws into strengths.
The movies starts with the Irish family of Johnny, Sarah, and their two daughters crossing into the United States from Canada. An immigration officer asks Johnny how many kids they have. Three, he says. Two, Sarah corrects. They lost one, Johnny tells the officer. This family has, quite literally, tried to leave its grief behind.
They move to New York City. Johnny can’t get hired as an actor, so he drives a cab. Sarah works, too. Their apartment is in a run-down building full of drug addicts. It’s too damned hot in the summer. Sarah gets pregnant, and that seems to spell trouble for all sorts of reasons: money, her health, the baby’s health, and the encroaching need to address unresolved issues related to the death of their son.
But cheer up, campers! This is America, after all, the land of opportunity, and nothing stays bad for long. Johnny is on the verge of losing his family’s rent money to a carnival game — to get his daughter an E.T. doll she badly wants — and that last ball is definitely going in the can. Money surely must be tight, but that doesn’t stop Johnny and Sarah from sending their kids to a private school. And that $30,000-plus hospital bill? Poof. Poverty, disease, and death are finally banished in a series of contrived happy endings.
At face value, these things are, of course, ridiculous.
But Sheridan and his daughters are crafty writers, and the themes of fantasy, acting, and make-believe pervade the movie. Sure, the plot developments aren’t realistic, but the movie seems to be saying that fantasy is an appropriate placeholder for grief.
In America inhabits a world in which E.T. is still playing on movie screens while the elder daughter carries a compact camcorder clearly from the 1990s. The setting is vague, a fabrication of the mind in which E.T. is prevalent for symbolic purposes, a reassurance that loved ones who die are going home, not rotting away in the ground.
Fantasy is more a thread in the story than its fabric; although the plot developments border on the absurd, the story is told with the right level of gritty realism. New York City isn’t a scrubbed paradise; the addict who once gave Johnny food stamps turns on him; and the air conditioner Johnny lugged up the stairs shorts out the entire building. It’s a tricky balancing act, but Sheridan manages it.
That’s partly because although the movie doesn’t have a clear point of view, its heart and voice lie with the eldest daughter, Christy, who appears to about 10 or 11. It’s a smart move, because at that age children are like swirled ice cream, still mostly naïve and hopeful but with a ribbon of adult awareness and understanding. That’s why AIDS is suggested but never discussed.
The movie is unimaginable without the performers. Paddy Considine and Samanatha Morton are weary and wary as the parents who work hard at trying to lead their lives normally in spite of the turmoil inside them. A doped-up Sarah breaks Johnny’s — and the audience’s — heart with delusional accusations that sting even though — or maybe even because — they’re so irrational.
The daughters — played by real-life siblings Sarah and Emma Bolger — are natural and sweet, avoiding the typical saccharine child performance and yet not seeming too much like little grown-ups. As a dying-artist neighbor, Djimon Hounsou is dignified and steely in the role of the movie’s Boo Radley — dangerous and mysterious at first, but predictably misunderstood. He’s another immigrant bearing a terrible burden, but he seems to have long ago accepted his lot, even if he hasn’t made peace with it.
Johnny, Sarah, and the girls are still struggling with acceptance, on the other hand, refusing to acknowledge that their family has a tremendous hole in it. So in its final passage, In America forcefully argues that we emerge from our fantasy worlds when we’re ready to deal with grief. The movie’s happy endings aren’t really happy at all; they mark the end of pretend, and the beginning of the difficult work of real life.