In America

December, 2003, Drama

Directed by:Jim Sheridan

Starring:Paddy Considine, Samantha Morton, Sarah Bolger, Emma Bolger, and Djimon Hounsou

Irish director Jim Sheridan (My Left Foot, In The Name Of The Father) has produced fewer than 10 films during his career as a screenwriter and dramatist, but each one conveys a profound sense of the place and the culture of its protagonists. Most have been set in his native Ireland, but in this, his most autobiographical work to date, the locale is New York City at its most ravaged. An odd place to set this story of a trio of youngsters and their immigrant parents, but Sheridan knows just where he's going, because he's already been there…

America is a thinly disguised version of events, (co-authored by the director and daughters Naomi and Kirsten) in the life of the Sheridan family in the days when the director first forged his career in the theater. A family of four--Johnny, Sarah and their daughters Christy and Ariel slide over the Canadian border into the U.S. so Dad can look for work as an actor. And what about that third child? He's died, under circumstances that have trapped his parents in a web of mutual recrimination, leaving his sisters a pained, helpless audience in their parents’ unfolding trauma. 

Moving into a shabby apartment building home to drug addicts and panhandlers, Johnny struggles through endless theatrical tryouts, moonlighting as a cabbie to make ends meet. The girls become charity enrollees in a Catholic day school and experience the overwhelming challenge of their new home with a mixture of awe, pluck and fear-- the last of which emanates from Mateo, a Nigerian painter who lives just below them. Despite his thunderous demands to be left alone, the girls manage to captivate him on a Halloween "trick or treat" tour of the building, and as a result, Mateo becomes a welcome presence in the lives of Sarah and her daughters. Mateo is also consumed with death--but in his case prospectively, as he's dying of AIDS.

Ice cream cones, a first air conditioner, swimming in a makeshift bathtub, a trip to a carnival; the city opens up to the all-consuming gaze of Christy and Ariel as they struggle to understand their father's moody rage and their mother's stubborn determination to keep the four of them from spinning off into mutual self-destruction. She gets pregnant, he finally lands a part in a play, the girls settle in at school and they all watch Mateo slowly waste away…New life arrives neither to replace the first born son nor the now dying friend, but rather to permit Johnny the opportunity of finally accepting his son's death and a return to the role of attentive father to the daughters who have hungered so long for the return of his loving affection….

America isn't filled with the high tension and dramatic explosiveness of Sheridan's better-known works, but there's a clear-eyed honesty permeating every scene which invites, rather than compels, the attention of the audience. Real-life sisters Sarah and Emma Bolger play Christy and Ariel with heartbreaking sweetness, and Djimon Hounsou, (first seen in Amistad) astutely conveys the angry frustrations embodied in his fatally ill artist. Samantha Morton and Paddy Considine play the parents; I found her performance a bit mannered, and Considine not sufficiently focused, although his ambivalent feelings constitute the crux of the film's plot. 

Despite its many assets, America emerges as well-intentioned group therapy rather than superb drama; Sheridan's story-telling skills notwithstanding, this film is less impressive than his earlier successes. But the opportunity to see the performances of the sisters Bolger makes this film well worth the price of admission.  

Jake's Takes comments powered by Disqus