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Family Despair


In America

Jim Sheridan, USA / UK / Ireland, 2002

Rating: 3.0



Posted: December 24, 2003

By Laurence Station

Jim Sheridan has proven he can do an effective, unapologetically evenhanded biopic (My Left Foot) and give an impassioned accounting of justice gone wrong (In the Name of the Father). Turning the camera on himself, however, and writing objectively about his family's experiences immigrating to America in the early 1980s, is asking a bit much of his proven impartiality. In America is a movie without an anchor. Perhaps having three family members drawing on their memories (Sheridan's daughters and co-screenwriters were in their pre-teens at the time the story takes place) and shoehorning in the childhood death of Sheridan's brother, Frankie, from a brain tumor (transformed here to his son) skews the focus from a grounded examination of a young Irish family struggling to make ends meet in New York Hell's Kitchen to Sheridan using the more dramatically effective setting to reconcile personal grief.

In America tracks the Sullivan family's first year in New York. Sarah (Samantha Morton), Johnny (Paddy Considine, bearing an uncanny resemblance to Stephen Rea from three decades back), and the couple's two daughters, Christy and Ariel (real life sisters Sarah and Emma Bolger), take up residence in a rundown tenement filled with junkies and artists. The junkies constantly hit up the desperately poor family for money, while Mateo (Djimon Hounsou), an artist in the building, rages against the dying of the light while fighting AIDS. That is, until he meets the Sullivans, and has a few months of grace before the disease claims him. While Johnny struggles to find acting jobs and drives a taxi, and Sarah works in a soda shop, the seemingly unflappable daughters treat the decrepit building as a magical construct filled with ghosts and imaginary figures. When the embittered Mateo learns that the girls' brother died a year earlier, he transforms into a warm, caring soul who paints with the sisters and breaks bread with the family.

Mateo's imminent departure hangs expectantly in the background, but it's the death of Frankie Sullivan that weighs most heavily over the family, and demands resolution before the final credits. Sarah becomes pregnant, even though doctors have told her that she's unable to have any more children. When the baby arrives early, the lives of both mother and newborn are jeopardized. Obviously, the arrival of a new life (minor spoiler: both survive) would help assuage the still-fresh wound of losing Frankie, and by the end a sort of peace has been achieved within the family. Sarah and Johnny stop blaming one another for the loss, and the girls are finally able to say goodbye to their brother.

In America's greatest problem stems from its inability to commit to either taking a child's-eye, more fantastic view of life and death, or sticking with a grittier, real-world examination of how grief can destroy a family if allowed to fester unchecked. One can almost see Sheridan inserting part of the story from an adult perspective, and his two daughters doing likewise from a child's point of view. Ultimately, these two viewpoints prove irreconcilable, and the overall narrative suffers as a result. If Sheridan had directed a screenplay written solely by his daughters, without any of his input, the film no doubt would have felt more unified. As therapy for the director, In America certainly appears to do its job. But it does little for those not in the immediate family.

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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: A masterpiece
 4.0-4.9: Exceptional

 3.0-3.9: Solid fare

 2.0-2.9: The mediocrities...
 1.1-1.9: Poor
 0.0-1.0: Utter dreck
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