Monday, May 23, 2011

#290. In America (2003)

Directed By: Jim Sheridan

Starring: Paddy Considine, Samantha Morton, Djimon Hounsou

Trivia:  Samantha Morton, who plays Sarah, was 25 years old when the movie was filmed. She is only 14 years older than Sarah Bolger, who plays her eldest daughter, Christy, in the film.

What is it that prevents director Jim Sheridan’s In America from slipping into the category of a sappy melodrama? At first glance, not much. A handful of that particular genre's clichés are here for the taking: a family dealing with a tragedy, a difficult pregnancy, a terminally ill neighbor, etc., etc. 

Sounds like a TV movie of the week, doesn’t it? 

Well, I’m here to tell you that if you avoid this film because you've "seen it all before", you’re depriving yourself of a wonderful experience. Jim Sheridan has been called a master storyteller, and In America may just be his crowning achievement. 

Johnny (Paddy Considine), an actor who hopes to make it on Broadway, moves his family - which includes his wife Sarah (Samantha Morton) and their two daughters Christy and Ariel (played by real-life sisters Sarah and Emma Bolger) - from Canada to New York City. Along with getting his career off the ground, Johnny is looking for a fresh start after losing his only son, Frankie, who died recently following a fall down some stairs. But making a life in New York isn’t going to be easy for Johnny, who struggles with Frankie’s death each and every day. Fortunately, the love and support of his young family may just carry him through. 

One of the things that saves In America from becoming a typical melodrama are the excellent performances. The film was graced with three Academy Award nominations, two of which were for acting (Samantha Morton for Best Actress, and Djimon Hounsou, who plays the sickly neighbor Mateo, for Best Supporting Actor). But as wonderful as Considine, Morton and Hounsou are, the real showstoppers in this movie are the Bolger sisters. These girls shine in every scene they appear in, and their characters bring a spark of life to a family suffering incredible hardships. It’s through their eyes that we see the hope for better days, even if those days usually seem a bit out of reach. 

That said, the pivotal character of In America is one who never appears on-screen: the deceased son, Frankie. Johnny has never fully recovered from Frankie’s death, and at one point says to Mateo, “The last time I talked with God, I made a deal with him to take me instead of Frankie. Instead, he took us both”. Johnny walks through life as if he were a ghost, devoid of any feelings, a definite drawback for a man trying to get a job as an actor. Lucky for him, Sarah, Ariel and Christy (who doubles as the film's narrator) are there to remind Johnny he has something to live for. 

By taking the standard plotlines and molding them around a wonderful small family, In America stands as a shining example of how a formula, when done with warmth and energy, can still seem entirely fresh.

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