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Wednesday, Dec. 10, 2003
The Big (candy-coated) Apple
By KAORI SHOJI
"In America" takes a new cinematic angle on the immigration experience. Set in New York City in the early 1980s, "In America" is less about coming to the United States in search of a better life than it is about rekindling family love, bringing everyone back together: immigration as therapy. How times have changed from, say, the Ellis Island scene in "The Godfather, Part II" -- those rows and rows of immigrants clutching battered suitcases, racked with fatigue, herded like cattle.
Compare that to the opening scene of "In America": a modern Irish family driving into N.Y. from Canada. A friendly official at the border casually checks their passports, asks how many children there are, and welcomes them to America. Within that same day, they have the keys to a spacious loft (OK, it needs a lot of cleaning and fixing, but a loft's a loft) and by evening they are eating sundaes in an ice-cream parlor across the street. There's never even a glimpse of the Statue of Liberty, and things like language difficulties or racial prejudice are not even issues. In this way, the story feels new -- none of the family are overawed by the U.S., and in fact, even display a bit of defiance. "America's all right," pronounces one of the little girls. "It's OK if we stay here."
It's N.Y.C. in 1982 and Johnny (Paddy Considine), his wife, Sarah (Samantha Morton), and their two daughters, 11-year-old Christy (Sarah Bolger), and 8-year-old Ariel (Emma Bolger), have just moved into a derelict apartment building known in the neighborhood as "that druggie place." Johnny is an out-of-work actor who fails audition after audition while Sarah waitresses to pay the rent.
Sometimes their relationship seems strained. The couple are still privately mourning the loss of their 7-year-old son, who died from a brain tumor. They relocated to New York to escape painful memories and of the two, Johnny seems to be the most damaged. Nothing, however, dents the exuberance of the daughters, particularly Ariel, whose every fleeting emotional expression is so precious that you just want to freeze the frames and take them home. Christy, though calmer, is none the less intriguing. She functions as the second camera eye of the movie, training a camcorder -- her prize possession -- on all the details of daily life and sometimes coming out with the shrewdest of observations: "In America, you're not supposed to ask for help; you're supposed to demand it."
Filmmaker Jim Sheridan ("My Left Foot," "In the Name of the Father"), who co-wrote the script with his two daughters, lets the story free-float among the characters, touching on aspects of their lives or personalities and never letting one person monopolize the screen. This is perhaps what works best in "In America": The camera wanders from family member to family member, its gaze pausing on certain facial expressions before passing on to someone else, like a valued friend who drops in from time to time to see how everyone is doing.
The hard-luck tone of "In America" never falters into desperation. For all the (seemingly) honest and intimate relationships the camera has going with the characters, the story itself doesn't venture beyond that familiar cinematic environ: the fairy tale in New York. (Or is it Fairyland, N.Y.?) Manhattan as depicted by Sheridan is full of helpful people and huge apartments, available after only a one-day search (a detail that will not be forgiven by New Yorkers). When Sarah checks into the hospital during a difficult pregnancy, there are no inquiries made about insurance or whether Johnny can pay for her treatment. The effect is complete when the girls dress up in their homemade costumes for Halloween and Ariel prances around as an angel. You just know that whatever else happens to the family can only be cozy.
While both the story and the city offers the family plenty of opportunities to heal wounds and reconnect (a summer thunderstorm, for example, is used to trigger and then orchestrate Johnny and Sarah's lovemaking), the other immigration experience in the movie is defined by lonely tragedy. Mateo (Djimon Honsou), the mysterious black man who lives downstairs, has been dubbed The Man Who Screams by the other tenants because of his sudden howlings that echo up the stairwell. A Haitian artist dying from AIDS, Mateo befriends the family but remains alone in his suffering. When a jealous Johnny asks him whether he is in love with Sarah, Mateo replies: "Yes, I'm in love with her. And you, and your children and your unborn baby. I'm in love with anything that lives!"
Johnny is awed by the intensity of Mateo's speech and of their shared moment. From then on something inside him changes. This exchange is what remains after so many other things about the film have faded, making you want to believe (as perhaps Sheridan does) that only in America are such moments possible, that lovely, soul-altering miracles like these are more likely to happen there than anywhere else.