“In America” is a modern underdog story set in a somewhat familiar place at no specific time.
Director Jim Sheridan (“My Left Foot,” “In the Name of the Father”) co-wrote the semi-autobiographical screenplay for his newest film with his two daughters Naomi and Kirsten Sheridan. It was the 1980s when Sheridan moved his Irish family to America and struggled to make it as a filmmaker.
This would explain why the family in the movie, led by a determined father (Paddy Considine), goes to see “E.T: The Extra-Terrestrial” in the theater. But it doesn’t explain why his eldest daughter carries around a digital camcorder throughout the film, or why Times Square looks like the Times Square of today, and the recent film “Iron Monkey” is playing around the corner from their home.
In fact, these timeline inconsistencies are but one of the many reasons that “In America” is a surreally timeless tale. The struggle to keep a family together against all odds is nothing new, but with modern-day Manhattan as a backdrop, it’s a colorful affair. The film avoids easy explanations of its characters and situations, often dropping us in the middle of a scene that’s already begun and leaving out other scenes that one expects to see. It’s an effect that enhances the dream-like quality surrounding the movie.
The Sheridans are Oscar-nominated for their screenplay, and deservedly so. As much as the story itself is rooted in tradition, it uses multi-ethnic New York as a device to divert from the norm as much as possible.
The family finds an unlikely friend in Mateo (Djimon Hounsou), a sick painter from downstairs who we mostly hear bellowing through the floors and walls of the run-down apartment building. Hounsou, also Oscar-nominated, has a huge presence. His menacing veneer is soon replaced by a mounting love for life, as he warms up to the newly transplanted family.
Sheridan avoids the trappings of the struggling artist routine by focusing “In America” on his wife and kids and the adjustments they face in their new homeland. We see Dad the out-of-work actor auditioning for roles around New York, but no more than we see his wife (Oscar-nominated Samantha Morton) working at “Heaven,” an ice cream parlor that represents just that for the children. This is not the story of some actor’s difficult rise to the top.
New York City, as portrayed in the movie, is a magical place. The apartment building is certainly a grimy, run-down affair. Only once, however, does dangerous reality ever catch up with the family, in the form of an opportunistic mugger. In fact, the sights and sounds of Manhattan’s diversity are celebrated.
Real-life sisters Sarah and Emma Bolger play the daughters who are wise well beyond their years. The narration for the film is provided by the eldest sister. It is obvious that “In America” is a semi-autobiographical version of the story as seen through Sheridan’s daughters’ eyes.
Forced to grow up quickly, the girls are the center of the movie. Father tries to keep moods light and happy around the house, but so much of the family’s life is spent meeting the challenges of survival.
The maturity these young girls show in the face of adversity serves the narrative a bit too conveniently, but the Bolgers are very good in the roles. And this portrait of a poor family in a bustling, new city is colored by the authenticity of Jim, Naomi, and Kirsten Sheridan’s experiences.