In America

“In America” is the best film I’ve seen this year. And to be fair, I’ve seen some truly great films so that comment is no small task.

Films like the Shakespearian “Capturing the Friedmans” and the endearing “American Splendor”. Brutally horrifying films like “Irreversible” and valiantly triumphant films like “Return of the King”.

“In America” was the champion of them all.

It is a remarkable little gem of a film. I think those are my favorite, the quiet sort that sneak up on you. The ones that are sure of themselves without any pretense. The ones that are earnest without being forced, genuine without a shred of manipulation. “In America” is all of these and more, for it also manages to handle the delicateness of its setting in the midst of the gravity of its subject matter. “In America” centers on a mournful Irish immigrant family starting a new life in New York, a city dealing with its own fresh sorrows. The family (father Johnny, mother Sarah, sisters Christy and Ariel) have very recently lost their youngest member, son Frankie.

Very early, it seems as though the family is fleeing that former life with Frankie and his untimely death. Yet the wounds of guilt and grief follow them. The parents do the best they can in desperate situations, like making a home out of a complete dump of an apartment in the worst area of Hell’s Kitchen. The bonds of family are strong here — yet every breath of free air, every scent of new hope is tinged with that lingering, haunted sorrow of lost life.

It’s uncanny how well director Jim Sheridan succeeds here. Samantha Morton (Sarah) continues to exhibit the most emotive face I’ve ever seen. She’s luminous in this film. Paddy Considine (Johnny) is a wonderful new actor that must somehow balance the line between enveloping sorrow and unphased supportiveness. If that weren’t enough, he also is wrestling with the traditional notions of family bread-winning. He’s a frustrated actor who knows his lines, but has lost the feeling behind them. Needless to say, he can’t find work in New York. And even if he did, could that possibly support his family? Sarah eventually takes a job waiting tables and pleads with Johnny to “be happy for the kids!”

The child actors (real life sisters Sarah and Emma Bolger) too are amazing. Emma especially shines as youngest Ariel, even more so than her older sister. But it’s not just a simple case of upstaging. True, the character of Ariel is precocious and Emma gobbles up her scenes with endearing charm.

But there’s a very measured orchestration going on here. Sheridan knows precisely what he wants from his actors, and he gets it from the elder Bolger. Her Christy has a very definite awareness and understanding of Ariel’s antics. She tolerates both her and her perpetually grieving parents (“Don’t little girl me! I’ve been carrying the weight of this family for a long time”). She’s been forced to grow up emotionally at a terribly young age. And the proof of this is in Christy’s eyes and cherubic face, which dually betray the wisdom of premature experience (neither New York’s strangest phase her, nor their afflicted neighbor and deceased Frankie darken her spirits).

This is after all, Christy’s story, told through her ever-present camcorder lens in an almost documentary style. There are moments where Sheridan’s camera follows Christy’s viewfinder, and sometimes even right into the camcorder footage. There is even an irregular narration offered by Christy as she guides us through the emotional land minds.

The film brings up resonating issues of masculinity, grief and loss, true joy, life and death. And underneath all of those very Big Ideas, is a remarkable foundation of utter sincerity. So many self-conscious “important” films in Hollywood try too hard to jerk tears from you. Yet “In America” had me weeping during moments that weren’t necessarily contrived for such audience emotion. Sheridan knows (from his own life, I suspect) that the moments which are most impacting are the quiet introspective ones, the dark nights of the soul, which have no sweeping soundtrack or swooning melodrama. They are subtle, real slices of life, from which anyone can take interest.

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