Back in the late 1980's and early 1990's, Irish film director Jim Sheridan directed Daniel Day-Lewis in a pair of well-received movies--"My Left Foot" and "In the Name of the Father"--that grabbed a big share of the Oscar nominations in their respective eligibility years. While Sheridan's latest movie "In America" does not star Day-Lewis this time around, it is just as compelling and as superbly acted as his previous efforts. Like "My Left Foot", which tells an inspirational tale of a quadriplegic Irishman overcoming all his adversities, "In America" somewhat follows along the same lines but this time with a young Irish family prevailing over the many obstacles while living in a foreign land. In some ways, "In America" is also inspirational but with a touch of sweetness, a subtlety that is hard to put a finger on and many times more personal. With "My Left Foot" and "In the Name of the Father", Sheridan has shown the knack for bringing true life stories to the screen in a manner that more than justifies the powerful experiences of the individuals involved. "In America" gives Sheridan a chance to tell another kind of true story--this time, his own. It also might as well have been called "In the Name of the Brother" as Sheridan lovingly dedicates the film to his late brother, Frankie.
"In America" is Sheridan's semi-autobiographical telling of his and his family's experiences living in New York City as Irish immigrants. Co-written by Sheridan together with two of his three daughters, Naomi and Kirsten, "In America" gives us some insights into the big city immigrant experience as the family tries to eke out a respectable living while coming to terms with an especially painful past. Although autobiographical in nature, "In America" does juggle fact and fiction like a circus act, over-dramatizing some aspects and adding new layers to the Sheridans' New York experience.
Johnny (Paddy Considine), his wife Sarah (Samantha Morton) and their two daughters, 10-year old Christy and 5-year old Ariel (wonderfully played by real-life sisters Sarah and Emma Bolger) illegally crosses the Canadian border into the United States in hopes of burying their heartbreaking past and starting fresh. What that past is, is vaguely hinted in the opening sequence but slowly we learn that the death of their youngest son, Frankie has caused a painful rift within the family. It later becomes obvious that Johnny had not accepted Frankie's death totally, keeping his anger in and putting the onus on Sarah to put her own grief aside in order to carry the girls through this crisis by herself. This angle is the main driving force for the movie, giving the story a good focus and its characters a noble goal that they can work towards. Through the many difficult situations that test their limit, transformation is inevitable and ultimately welcomed.
For all their past troubles, moving to New York City signifies a new beginning for the family and this is visually enforced by their awestruck faces as they gape at the glitzy lights that ring Times Square, helping them forget their troubles--past and future--if only for a brief moment. Moving into a dilapidated apartment building filled with junkies, unfriendly neighbors and "the man who screams", it seems that life will continue to be hard for this young family. However bleak things seem at first, they soon get better as Sarah lands a job at an ice-cream parlor while the kids revel in a truly diverse clash of cultures in their neighborhood that is so characteristic of New York City. Like Sheridan when he first got to New York City in the 80's, Johnny is an aspiring actor, attending audition after audition in a city teeming with like-minded individuals, seeking their one big break. However, Johnny finds himself losing out on acting jobs because he is missing an important part of himself--his heart.
New York is a city of vast seasonal climate changes, balanced on one end by intolerable humidity during the peak of summer and harsh freezing winters at the other. Changing weather conditions also mean times of change for the family as they experience what it means to be living in NYC. Sandwiched in between summer and winter is the moderate and brisk temperature of the fall season, with its billowing dried leaves littering the ground and the fun celebration of Halloween and Thanksgiving. Embracing American culture also means celebrating its holidays. For Christy and Ariel, their first Halloween is a brand new experience and one that surprisingly brings an unexpected friend into their midst. Smitten by this plucky Irish family with an indomitable spirit, their mysterious neighbor Mateo (Djimon Hounsou), also fondly known as "the man who screams", becomes attached to the family in a way never thought possible.
Christy, who frequently uses her camcorder to record her family's comings and goings, narrates the film to great effect, coating the story with a child's innocent point of view that is extremely hard to fault. In fact, this could have been the movie's biggest failing. All the ominous signs were there. The syrupy sweetness--greatly enhanced by two of the cutest kids ever to appear on screen--together with a familiar tale of a family overcoming great obstacles and finally achieving redemption, is usually much too sentimental for my liking. However, in Jim Sheridan's able hands, "In America" proves that one can project sentimentality and still be relevant and entertaining. Dealing with the ravages of death in a dramatic movie is never an easy thing to do, especially when young children are involved. But Sheridan masterfully maneuvers the story in a way that puts the audience at ease with the subject.
My only complaint is that "In America" maintains a fairy tale-like undertone that tries to transcend mysticism and may be disconcerting for anyone expecting a more down-to-earth story. After all, it is touted as an autobiographical movie, albeit a loosely adapted one. However, real life is never that interesting and a movie without dramatic moments is one that no one wants to watch. Although "In America" is a story with a familiar theme, it is able to rise above the commonality with great execution and an outstanding cast. Clocking in at just over 100 minutes, the narrative is tight and easy to follow, with never a dull moment.
The main cast members for "In America" is a pretty small group and every single one of them performs admirably. It is really a big deal then when two of them, Samantha Morton ("Minority Report", "Morvern Callar") and Djimon Hounsou ("Amistad", "Gladiator") are able to garner deserving Oscar nominations for their respective roles in this movie. Irish newcomer Paddy Considine is also extremely effective as Johnny, an empty and bitter father without a warm heart or any hope. However, in my books, it is the two young sisters, Emma and Sarah Bolger who radiate maturity beyond their age and practically steals every scene they appear in. A child's innocence is such a powerful virtue that is best left to the young. If you listen to Jim Sheridan's audio commentary, you will hear him tell a great anecdote about how Emma reprimanded him for swearing in front of her younger sister while filming.
Both widescreen and fullscreen pan and scan versions of the movie are made available on this DVD, one on each side of the disc. Shown in an aspect ratio measuring 1.85:1, the anamorphic widescreen presentation (the fullscreen version as well) is impeccably transferred, featuring squeaky clean images that is as good as it will ever be. Colors are also superbly reproduced, with deep blacks and natural skin tones. Subtitles are available in English and Spanish.
On the audio side, the English language Dolby Digital 5.1 track is more than adequate to project all the necessary dialogue and musical scores for this dramatic movie. The all-important spoken word is cleanly reproduced, featuring crystal clear dialogue without any audible distortion. Also available are Spanish and French language Dolby Surround 2.0 audio tracks.
Not much to report on the list of special features for this DVD. On top of the list is an audio commentary by Jim Sheridan featured on both the fullscreen and widescreen versions of the movie. Sheridan offers an enjoyable commentary that brings out a lot of background information about the movie. He is also able to point out which scenes actually happened to him and which were dramatized for the screen.
On Side A (the FS side), there is a short 5-minute feature called "The Making of ‘In America'". On it, you will see interviews with Sheridan and most of the cast members. Not very interesting stuff as it is more promotional than anything. On the other side of the disc, nine "Deleted Scenes" are available with optional commentary by Jim Sheridan.
This DVD does not come with an insert.
"In America" may seem pretty corny and melodramatic as it shamelessly tugs at the audience's heartstrings without so much as an apology. For the most part, I have to agree with that statement. However, without realizing it, you will also find that this movie is able to suck us into its world and turn us into quick believers. A part of me wants to dismiss it but another much stronger part wants to believe. Maybe there is a need in all of us that wants to believe good things do happen to good people. "In America" fulfills that need and it makes me feel good about myself. At the same time, it makes me appreciate my own family so much more. And any movie that is able to do that is certainly a movie worth your time.