If you put yourself in the hands of emotion, you have to be willing to go along for the ride, and that goes for filmmakers as well as audiences. Strong, deep emotions cannot be any more easily regulated on screen than they can in life, and a film that traffics in them as wholeheartedly as "In America" is going to shake you up and hang you out to dry if you give it the chance.
Based loosely on Irish director Jim Sheridan's experiences when he and his family lived in New York some 20 years ago, "In America" believes in its people, and, like the supplicant who opens "The Godfather," it believes in America.
The film turns this insider's understanding of the immigrant experience and an unyielding belief in the value of family into a recklessly emotional film that is so committed to feelings it occasionally overflows its banks. Which may be a little messy, but it's a lot more welcome than the drought-stricken alternatives.
Sheridan, best known for "My Left Foot" and "In the Name of the Father," emphasized the personal nature of this film by writing it with the two daughters who lived that Manhattan experience with him, Naomi Sheridan and Kirsten Sheridan. Samantha Morton and Paddy Considine play parents Sarah and Johnny, but this family story belongs completely, body and especially soul, to the pair of child actors, real-life sisters Sarah Bolger and Emma Bolger, who play the family's children, 10-year-old Christy and 6-year-old Ariel. With their antic spirits and priceless smiles, they are the emotional heart of "In America," and it is impossible not to be won over by their charms.
We meet this Irish family of four as they immigrate illegally by pretending to be jolly vacationers from Canada. The nominal reason for the move is Johnny's desire to make it as an actor in New York, but the recent death of the couple's third child, a boy named Frankie, has made a change of scene an emotional necessity as well.
We warm to these people immediately, to careful, watchful Christy, the film's narrator, effervescent Ariel and their worried, decent parents. But when the family enters Manhattan for the first time, with the Lovin' Spoonful's "Do You Believe in Magic" on the soundtrack, and the girls' faces absolutely light up with wonder and joy, that's when we simply fall in love with them.
Because there is no money, housing options are limited, and the family ends up in an apartment in a junkie-infested Hell's Kitchen building, a place Christy's voice-over refers to as "the house of the man who screams," because one of the other tenants periodically emits wrenching, soul-destroying howls.
"In America," luminously photographed by Declan Quinn, is particularly adept at dealing with the immigrant experience, with lives lived on the knife edge of hope, poverty and despair that is in many ways this country's quintessential situation. The film shows us how tentative every good thing feels when you're not sure you belong, how small wants create devastating scenarios and how doing the impossible — like Johnny dragging a monster air conditioner across the city almost by pure force of will — becomes the bare minimum necessary for survival.
"In America" also illustrates how the small things become large, showing the way life's simple pleasures become more precious because they're so hard to come by. When the family fools around in the snow, or Johnny plays a "fee, fi, fo, fum" monster with his girls, we cherish these moments along with them because we know how fleeting they are destined to be.
Gradually, "In America" opens up to include other scenarios. There's a problematic pregnancy for Sarah, played by a short-haired Morton with her usual grace, and, once the man who screams becomes a real person and not a phantom, the relationship between Mateo (an improved Djimon Hounsou) and the entire family becomes a major plot strand.
These subsidiary stories don't manage the same impact as the immigrant tale and sometimes in telling them "In America" displays more emotions than it can properly handle, so much so that they threaten to overwhelm and capsize the film. That this doesn't happen is a tribute to a cast that took this story to heart, to the specific truth of Sheridan's journey and the larger truth of life in these United States it feelingly illuminates.
MPAA rating: PG-13, for some sexuality, drug references, brief violence and language
Times guidelines: Sophisticated adult material but suitable for older teens
Samantha Morton ... Sarah
Paddy Considine ... Johnny
Djimon Hounsou ... Mateo
Sarah Bolger ... Christy
Emma Bolger ... Ariel
A Hell's Kitchen production, released by Fox Searchlight Pictures. Director Jim Sheridan. Producers Jim Sheridan, Arthur Lappin. Screenplay Jim Sheridan & Naomi Sheridan & Kirsten Sheridan. Cinematographer Declan Quinn. Editor Naomi Geraghty. Costumes Eimer Ni Nhaoldomhnaigh. Music Gavin Friday, Maurice Seezer. Production design Mark Geraghty. Art director Susie Cullen. Set decorator Johnny Byrne. Running time: 1 hour, 43 minutes.
In general release