In America

In America (15)

There are hidden depths to this little gem that, at the outset, are so deeply camouflaged that it is impossible to see how emotionally affecting, how heart-warming, how unapologetically moving this beautiful film is going to be.

It begins like any number of standard family dramas, as a young Irish couple make an illegal entry via Canada into the United States and wind up, with their two daughters, in New York City.

Desperately poor, living in a decrepit tenement with drug addicts, beggars and a mysterious neighbour who shouts and screams behind a door scrawled with the message “Keep Away” in strident orange letters, life is tough with a capital ‘T’.

Dad Johnny (rising star Paddy Considine putting in a brilliant performance) is an aspiring actor who works nights as a cabbie while trudging the city’s streets by day attending auditions as mum Sarah (Samantha Morton, equally compelling) keeps life and soul together on just a few dollars. More than anything, daughters Christy and Ariel (extraordinary sisters Sarah and Emma Bolger, riveting throughout) prevent the family unit from imploding.

One key sequence, at a fairground, has Johnny betting the family’s remaining money on a ball game to win an ET doll. He loses and bets again. Loses and bets again. The money is running out. Double or quits. “Give me the rent money. I can’t lose in front of the kids again,” he demands plaintively. It’s grim stuff.

Director Jim Sheridan, here making his first film since 1997’s The Boxer, evokes the mood of a modern Ellis Island with New York’s teeming streets, seemingly all full of foreigners. He plays his trump card with the inclusion of Mateo, a strange, scary and wondrous African artist winningly played by the giant and wonderfully dignified African actor Djimon Hounsou who, like a virtuoso musician, plays all our heartstrings.

Throughout it all the shadow of a dead child looms large over Johnny, Sarah and their kids. And when Sarah falls pregnant again the past comes flooding back as Mateo, his eyes twinkling with tears, acts as confessor to the girls’ memories of their lost brother.

In America is a remarkably simple fable of good, honest folk in a big, wide world full of woes and, trials and tribulations. Yet Sheridan never overplays his hand, casting doubt on whether Johnny and Sarah will survive their deeply felt personal tragedy, peppering their battle for survival with moments of division and trauma that immediately heighten the odds against the family’s survival in this giant melting pot of fragmented humanity.

His triumph is that, while In America emerges as a tearjerker of the first order, it is never mawkish or clumsy. It helps that the central quartet is so astonishingly right for their roles, and that Sheridan’s script (co-written with his daughters) covers all the appropriate angles without laying on the kind of American schmaltz that would drown other films.

This is a movie that will put half a dozen lumps in your throat. You will weep quietly and you will sob heavily. There is redemption here, there is love and there is the innocence of children. There is life. What more do you need?

This is brilliant. You’ll kick yourself if you miss it.

Star rating: *****

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