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In America

directed by Jim Sheridan

By Jesse Kornbluth
Published: Jan 01, 2007
Category: Drama

Name the film directors whose first film won Academy Awards for their co-stars. There’s only one: Jim Sheridan, who directed “My Left Foot” in 1989. Brenda Fricker won an Oscar for Best Actress. Daniel Day-Lewis was named Best Actor. And Jim Sheridan established himself as a director who could plumb deep emotion without wallowing in it.

Two more films, four more Oscar nominations — clearly, Sheridan has a way with actors. And then, in 2003, he co-authored and directed “In America,” starring Paddy Considine, Samantha Morton, Djimon Honsou (who went on to co-star in “Blood Diamond”) and two sisters, 12-year-old Sarah Bolger and 8-year-old Emma. Morton was nominated for Best Actress by the Academy. Honsou was a nominee for Best Supporting Actor. The Bolger sisters were robbed.

But then, so was “In America,” which has embedded itself in my memory as one of the wisest, most affecting films I’ve ever seen. I just watched it again. On second viewing, it’s just as powerful.

I suspect this is, in part, because “In America” is the kind of story that the Irish do best. There’s plenty of painful, gritty realism — there’s also a rich stream of magic. They merge at the start of the film. The strands never separate. 

It works like this: Johnny Sullivan, his wife Sarah and their daughters sit in their old station wagon at the Canadian border, waiting to be admitted to the United States as “tourists.” In fact, this Irish actor and his family plan to be illegal aliens in New York City. Johnny presents his documents….

Immigration Officer: How many children do you have?
Johnny: Three.
Sarah: Two.
Johnny: Two.
Immigration Officer: Says three here.
Johnny: We lost one.

That lost child is Frankie, recently dead at 5. His legacy is grief — grief like a lead blanket, grief so heavy there’s no point talking about it because everyone feels it and no one knows what to do about it. Christy, the older daughter, has been “talking” to Frankie every night and believes that he has given her three wishes. Seeing that this moment could go either way, she uses one: Please let us into America….

In New York, the Sullivans find an apartment in a druggie-infested slum. The girls like America. But Johnny is stymied in the land of opportunity — his auditions are flat, he can’t get a part, he becomes one of that army of actors who drives a cab. More stress: Sarah gets pregnant and learns that the baby could endanger her health. And the kids have befriended Mateo, a neighbor — a fierce, hostile African artist who, unknown to them, is dying of AIDS.

You watch all this, mouth open, as if you are watching a documentary. Credit the writing and, equally, the performances: Samantha Morton is all eyes and hope.  Paddy Considine is a tormented block of ice. And the girls — well, here’s Jim Sheridan recalling how he cast them:

There was an open audition and Emma was the very first girl. I got Emma to read, and I thought she was a bit too good, so I went to get another girl, and Emma pulled my coat really hard, and I looked ’round and she just looked at me with pity, as if I’d crossed the line of etiquette, and she said, "Is she reading my part?" I waited and looked in her eyes, and she didn’t back down, so I said, "No, Emma, nobody’s reading your part. She said, "Good, my sister’s in the car." I said, "What age?" She said, "10." I thought that was too young. She said, "Well, see her anyway." And I went down and cast her after three minutes. So that was the first two kids out of 300 — I never saw any others.

There are scenes in this movie that will haunt you all your days. At a street fair, John bets every dollar they have in order to win an ET doll for the kids….Sarah, wild-eyed, briefly loses her mind in the maternity ward….Christy sings “Desperado” at a school talent show….Johnny confesses to Mateo, “I asked God a favor — take me instead of him. And he took the both of us.” And then there is a line that was, for me, the killer: Christy announcing, “Don’t ‘little girl’ me — I’ve been carrying this family on my back for more than a year.”

Oh, the wisdom of kids. These girls find the words than no one else can say. They form the friendships that lead the family back to life. You can see some kind of happy ending coming, but you absolutely can’t see how — and then Christy uses her third and final wish.

When I saw “In America” in a theater, people all around us were blubbering at that favor; how simple it was, and how hard. Christy’s words to her father cut deep, but they cut with such love. And then there are words — three words, and you’ll never guess them — that Johnny has to say.

The catharsis, when it comes, is glorious. There’s a second one, a printed line at the start of the credits — the dedication of the film “to the memory of my brother, Frankie.” A little research reveals that Jim Sheridan was 17 when his younger brother died. But the ages don’t matter, only the emotions. And there is no director on this planet who handles emotional truth better than Jim Sheridan.

As you will see in those moments when your tears don’t blur the screen.

To buy “In America” from Amazon.com — for $9.99 — click here.

To go to the “In America” web site, click here.