Sentimentality is a blunt instrument normally favored by the talentless and/or soulless director, used to bludgeon the audience with counterfeit epiphanies tearfully arrived at to the strains of lush strings and a lone soprano (worst case scenario: Bette Midler) belting out syrupy lyrics or "ah"-ing the melody as a beloved character achieves some hard-won objective (often with their last dying breath). That audiences the world over welcome such shamelessly empty manipulation suggests ours is a planet of emotional cripples, but this popularity has also hardened more discerning moviegoers to a genre and style of storytelling with deep cultural roots. Particularly endangered by this resistance to anything approaching schmaltz is the Irish tendency toward magic realism, which is best indulged in with heart proudly and floridly embroidered on its sleeve. Entering the world of Jim Sheridan's semi-autobiographical In America (2002) without an appreciation for this tradition, and a healthy resistance to its residual, free-flowing sap, could prove fatal. And that would be a shame. Expertly directed, written and performed, it's as confident and genuine a piece of feel-good entertainment to emerge since 9/11, an event it tangentially references by being set in a timeless New York City of disarming eccentrics who, even at their most desperate, emit a conspiratorial kindness seemingly inspired by some unspoken collective tragedy. There are also personal losses haunting the denizens of Sheridan's world. For the Irish immigrant family at its center, it's the death of Frankie, the young son of Johnny (Paddy Considine) and Sarah (Samantha Morton). They've recently arrived to America with their daughters Christy and Ariel (played by real life sisters Sarah and Emma Bolger) so that Johnny can pursue his dream as an actor on the New York City stage. Living in an enormous, dilapidated Hell's Kitchen slum apartment (as outsized as the film's heart), the clan is at first faced with the obstacles thrown in the way of all new Manhattan-ites (crime, humidity, and the city's unrelenting mass of humanity); their income provided by Johnny slugging it out as a cab driver and Sarah working in an ice cream parlor across the street. The girls, meanwhile, live a friendless, if cheerful, existence until the meet "The Man Who Screams," aka their downstairs neighbor Mateo, a tortured artist who rages at the canvas as, it is later revealed, an outlet for the grief and frustration fueled by a terminal sickness. As Mateo strikes up a warm relationship with the girls, he engenders increasing resentment from Johnny, who suddenly begins to feel obsolete in his own family. This results in his becoming even more emotionally closed off, which not only casts a chill over his relationship with Sarah, but also stunts his growth as an actor. When Sarah becomes pregnant again, Johnny is less joyful than despairing, and while there's little doubt that the family will be ferried across these choppy waters on the poignantly broad shoulders of its emotional center, it's unclear how Johnny will make peace with his paralyzing guilt over the death of his son.
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A work full of genuine humanity, In America which was co-written by Sheridan with his grown daughters, Naomi and Kirsten deftly navigates a minefield of clichés and false sentiment with remarkably few missteps. There are moments of uncomfortable familiarity the family's jubilant Times Square arrival into the city, a stairwell mugging, and Mateo semi-collapsing in a moment of frivolity which often make the film feel like an emotional mugging, but one's attachment to the characters is so strong, it would take a staggering feat of cynicism to detach. A large portion of the credit for this is due to the masterful performances of all five principals, who form an ensemble as convincing as any close-knit off-screen brood. Considine convincingly dons a mask of repressed grief that grows more pained throughout, enlivening the picture with a Method angst that favorably recalls Sheridan's best collaborations with Daniel Day-Lewis. Meanwhile, Samantha Morton is tremendously affecting as the long-suffering Sarah, who frequently seems every bit the child Christy and Ariel are. Or maybe it's just that Sarah and Emma Bolger are so preternaturally mature in their depictions of these curious, fiercely intelligent sisters. Absent the grating ostentation of the worst child actors, the Bolgers are absolute finds; kids who are too busy playing to bother with the doldrums of performance. Clearly, Sheridan was lucky in casting, but he's got such a sterling reputation as an actor's director that their brilliance is his triumph, too. That he even gets away with utilizing the exotic African-American trope (turned into a full-blooded character by Djimon Honsou in his best work to date) only confirms the sincerity of his art.
Fox presents In America in excellent anamorphic (1.85:1) and full-frame (1.33:1) transfers with very good Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. Extras include an enjoyable feature length commentary from Sheridan that is every bit as reflective and honest as the film itself. He fills in the factual background that served as the script's impetus (it was the death of his brother that dogged the director for so long), while eloquently discussing its readily apparent theme of abandoning death culture, which, for him, is both a reaction to 9/11 and "The Troubles" back home in Ireland. There are also nine deleted scenes and an alternate ending (all with optional commentary from Sheridan), which, as is the case with any good film, appear to have been wise cuts in retrospect. Also on board is a brief "making-of" featurette. Keep-case.