With "In America," filmmaker Jim Sheridan tells a story set in the United States for the first time, and it is one very much his own. The director of "My Left Foot and "In the Name of the Father," wrote this screenplay with his grown daughters, Naomi and Kirsten, to capture the experiences of an Irish family struggling to regain its footing after a tragedy.
Told from the perspective of the elder daughter, Christy (Sarah Bolger), In America is lovely and unusual -- a fresh, genuinely moving story populated by fully realized characters.
The family, like Sheridan's, enters America via Canada, uneasily settling in a cavernous tenement apartment in New York filled with heroin addicts, other immigrant families and Mateo (Djimon Hounsou, Gladiator), a mysterious, intimidating artist who screams a lot.
The father, Johnny (Paddy Considine, "24 Hour Party People," tries to gain a foothold as an actor, while mother Sarah (Samantha Morton, "Sweet and Lowdown) works at an ice-cream parlor.
Younger daughter Ariel is played by Emma Bolger, sister to the actress portraying Christy. Whether it is the kids' real-life closeness or the skill of Sheridan's direction, it's hard to remember a movie in which such young actors (Emma is now 7, Sarah, 11) have possessed such a natural, unaffected air. These kids are adorable, but they seem unlikely to ever star in any horrifying live-action adaptations of Dr. Seuss books.
In addition to painting a lyrical and unexpected portrait of childhood, In America also tells a heartbreaking, wonderful adult story. Considine has a breakthrough performance as Johnny, a loving father and husband crippled by his grief for a lost son. Morton, beautiful even with an extremely short and unflattering haircut, eloquently embodies the role of a gentle mother trying to keep her family intact. The fact that both actors are relatively unknown adds to the strength of the movie; like the kids, these people simply feel real.
In large part because of the dangerous building in which the family resides, there are a number of times throughout the movie when you fear the story is going to venture off into dark and contrived territory. But Sheridan never loses his grip, keeping In America honest. As a result, it is one of the most honestly compelling, truly touching movies of the year.