After their arrival in Manhattan, the Irish family of In America makes the customary trip through Times Square, that commercial break in the city’s narrative slipstream. But is their worn station wagon a time machine? We glimpse the glaring post-Giuliani signposts of Disneyfication and even a looming billboard for the recent Ocean’s Eleven remake, but elsewhere a somewhat fetishized E.T. doll and dark rumors of a contaminated blood supply flip the calendar back to 1982—as does the newcomers’ massive fixer-upper loft. Co-written with daughters Naomi and Kirsten, Jim Sheridan’s semi-autobiographical family romance draws on memories of his own household’s emigration to New York in the early ’80s, though perhaps “once upon a time” will do: In America unfurls like a fairy tale in a tenement castle bustling with intrigue, where a dead child grants wishes and casts spells from beyond the grave, and an ogre turns out to be a prince.
Asked how many kids they have, Johnny (Paddy Considine) says three, Sarah (Samantha Morton) says two. In the backseat we can spot introverted, camcorder-wielding narrator Christy (Sarah Bolger) and prosecutably cute Ariel (Emma Bolger); little Frankie, we discover, passed away back in Ireland, though Christy imagines him as a genie in a bottle whom she calls on in moments of distress. (Jim Sheridan’s own brother Frankie, to whom the film is dedicated, also died in childhood; the director took similarly discomfiting, patchwork liberties with the real-life raw goods of In the Name of the Father and My Left Foot, though one supposes it’s his prerogative in this case.) The family jostles for elbow room with the grasping junkies outside the building and the burbling pigeons populating the apartment, and keeps clear of neighbor Mateo (Djimon Hounsou), a glowering Haitian artist who hacks and screams at his canvases as much as he paints them. (In a frenzy of expressionism, Sheridan cross-cuts Mateo’s artmaking with Johnny and Sarah’s lovemaking, and scores the whole splattered mess to a thunderstorm.) One Halloween, the girls infiltrate Mateo’s lair, initiating a bond that provides Sheridan with two-for-one culture clash: The Scary Black Guy becomes the Saintly Black Guy.
In America‘s attempted stiff embrace of both street-level realism and end-of-the-rainbow whimsy is eased somewhat by firmly convinced performances from Morton, as a serene madonna who puts all her remaining faith in a new, risky pregnancy, and Considine, as the antic, affectionate dad barely holding it all together—whether trudging to futile acting auditions, lugging a millstone air-conditioning unit up endless stairs (vein-popping heroism unrivaled since Chief’s strongman act at the end of Cuckoo’s Nest), or betting the rent money on a carnival game to win the aforementioned E.T. toy. Johnny sometimes seems inflamed by a spreading rash of recklessness, but the Sheridans ornately prescribe antidotes of Mateo-style spirituality and an expeditious grief exorcism. At one point, the soundtrack showcases the Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Do You Believe in Magic,” and the film answers yes, in a voice meant to sound wonderingly childlike. Like a kid playing make-believe, In America is blithely confident of its own contrivances; it only benefits from a certain unselfconscious naïveté. And as with a misjudged Christmas gift or a mawkish sympathy card from a kindly relative, one can hardly doubt its uplifting intentions.