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IN AMERICA (article first published : 2004-03-7)

Labelled by some leading publications as being among the 20 best films of 2003, In America is a warm and captivating drama, delivered from the heart, that has Irish director Jim Sheridan, who gave us My Left Foot and The Boxer, deftly melding humour and pathos.

A family story co-penned with his daughters, Naomi and Kirsten, the picture is inspired by the death from a brain tumour at the age of 10 of Sheridan's younger brother, Frankie, to whom the film is dedicated. But this element merely provides the edgy undercurrent in a drama, unfolding in the early 90s, which probes the highs and lows of a young family battling to pull together and survive in a dingy tenement building in New York.

Johnny and Sarah (Paddy Considine and Oscar-nominee Samantha Morton), along with their two young daughters, Christie (Sarah Bolger) and Ariel (Emma Bolger), illegally settle in the United States from Ireland, via Canada. Although almost penniless, they are trying for a new start in life, to put behind them the poverty in their native lad and memories of their two-year-old, a boy whose tragic death still haunts them.

While her parents are battling to come to grips with the tragedy, young Christy, who is never without her cam-corder, strongly believes her brother's spirit has granted her three wishes and, if she uses them wisely, they'll make life better for her family. So she uses them sparingly - first to wish the family a safe passage into America; then in a tense moment involving cash, willpower and a measure of stupidity; then in a finale that will lead to the shedding of a tear or two.

The film is told mostly from Christy's point of view and if it all sounds very mushy and depressing, take note that In America, while not without its poignant moments, is much more than your average tearjerker. For starters, the entire cast is superb, most notably the two young girls, real sisters, who excude an innocence, intelligence and charm that is irresistible.

Considine is also beguiling, going through the full gamut of emotions. He is a complete natural as a wannabe actor, great with accents and technical aspects, but who fails to get acting jobs, and is forced to be a cabbie, through his inability to feel, following the loss of his son.

Morton, an Oscar-nominee for her mute performance in Woody Allen's Sweet and Lowdown, is every bit as affecting, meshing vulnerability and strength as the quiet and stoic mother, increasingly torn between past and present.

Also of note is the imposing, intense Djimon Hounsou, star of Amistad, who has earned an Oscar nod for playing a reclusive artist in the tenement building, an ill man the girls initially label The Screaming Man until they finally meet and befriend him.

Sheridan's film glitters with winning moments - among them a funny-sad sequence in which, to escape the Big Apple's humidity, Johnny lugs a battered air-conditioner through the streets and up countless steps to his bedroom, only to find the plug doesn't fit.

If In America has any major flaw it rests in Sheridan surprisingly paying scant attention to the fact that, with the action unfolding in a dicey area frequented by drug dealers and transvestites, the supposedly-caring parents show little concern over allowing their daughters to roam the streets by themselves, day or night. Rating: 8/10. - Billy Suter




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