National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
At the Movies
Issue Date:  December 26, 2003

Clockwise from top left: Paddy Considine, Samantha Morton, Emma Bolger and Sara Bolger in "In America"
-- B. Wetcher/Fox Searchlight Pictures/Zuma Press
Struggling with mortality

'In America' an Irish family seeks to put tragedy behind them

By Joseph Cunneen

The directors’ guild should protest that Jim Sheridan (“My Left Foot”) got unfair assistance on the screenplay of In America, which I hope gets to a theater near you by Christmas. When he enlisted the help of his daughters Ariel and Christy for his memoir of the family’s adventures in New York as Irish immigrants in the 1980s, they changed the point of view from his to their own at that time. The result is one of the few movies that credibly present the voice and viewpoint of children.

The Sullivans enter the United States illegally from Canada, pretending to be merely coming for a holiday, and Sheridan captures the infectious enthusiasm of newcomers getting their first glimpses of the glamour of Manhattan. Real-life sisters Emma and Sarah Bolger play the daughters, the more introverted Christy (the narrator) recording everything on her camcorder, and the more exuberant Ariel always rushing out to make a new friend. The family has already lost a young son, Frankie, in Ireland, a tragedy mirrored in the large eyes of the mother, Sarah (Samantha Morton, the most outstanding member of a fine cast), and which later motivates her to go ahead with a dangerous pregnancy.

We identify with this struggling family in their walk-up Hell’s Kitchen tenement and worry when the father Johnny (Paddy Considine) gets turned down for an acting job or bets the rent money on a carnival game to win an E.T. doll for Ariel. Money is tight, and the father has to drive a cab to pay the rent; when everyone is sweltering with the heat, Johnny heroically carries a heavy air-conditioning unit up five flights of stairs to bring a short-lived relief. The neighborhood junkies, hustlers and ordinary urban poor convey a nonthreatening realism, but Mateo (Djimon Hounsou), a heavyset black artist whose door is marked “Keep Out,” seems a cause for concern. In one sequence the parents send their daughters out to the ice cream store and there is a counterpoint between Sarah and Johnny’s ardent lovemaking and Mateo’s screams as he attacks his canvases. At Halloween, Ariel and Christy, not knowing Mateo is dying of AIDS, invade his privacy to play trick-or-treat; moved by their innocent joy, he weeps and shares some of the magical lore of his native Haiti.

“In America” is Sheridan’s most personal film to date. He is not afraid to wear his heart on his sleeve and we hear the Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Do You Believe in Magic?” on the soundtrack. Fortunately, he is never pretentious and keeps sentimentality under control, even though Mateo may seem a little too saintly. The way in which the Sullivans turn the dead Frankie’s constant presence from painful to positive ends is a thread to which audiences should be able to respond.

Joseph Cunneen is NCR’s regular film critic. His e-mail address is

Quick Takes:
After warning parents to keep small children home, some critics have hailed Bad Santa as a hilarious, long overdue send-up of Christmas movie bathos. The truth is, everyone should stay home. Though the premise of a heavy-drinking loser (Billy Bob Thornton) as Santa, working with a dwarf (Tony Cox) in order to rob department stores, is promising, the execution confuses sophomoric male chauvinism and four-letter words for humor. The first time the bored Santa asks a child, “What do you want?” and ends the interview with profanity, it is cynically amusing, but, overall, this one-joke movie is repetitive and unfunny.

National Catholic Reporter, December 26, 2003

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