In America is not really about Americans at all. It’s about the people who come to America in search of that elusive thing, the American dream.
The film follows an Irish family who land in Manhattan, dirt-poor and reeling from the death of one of the children, the never-seen Frankie. The family is still close-knit and lively, but opportunities are scarce in the land of the free.
Johnny (Paddy Considine), the dad, is an actor who has an excellent range of accents but no heart for his craft. Sarah (Samantha Morton), the mam, can’t find teaching work so she’s in a job at the local ice-cream parlour. Ariel (Emma Bolger), the younger of the two girls, is inquisitive, cute and devilishly funny, while Christy (Sarah Bolger), our narrator, is growing up too fast just watching the others.
It’s true what Angela’s Ashes author Frank McCourt said: nobody does poor and miserable like the Irish. This film shows the family, especially the dad, coming apart at the seams. Everything he tries do for his family, like hauling a massive air-conditioner up flights of stairs and winning an E.T. doll for Ariel, turns sour.
Jim Sheridan’s direction is intimate but understated throughout. Every dollar is parted with painfully, every bright New York light is dazzling and alien for this family. Simple things, like the decrepit locks on the apartment door, and an insurmountable $30,000 hospital bill, evinced groans from my fellow audience members – testament, I think, to how gritty and real the movie feels.
Some of this is certainly due to Sheridan’s own ‘80s emigration to the United States, and his two daughters co-wrote the film’s screenplay. But his direction of In the Name of the Father is evidence that he’s never shied away from grim realities and emotional confrontations.
This closeness is contrasted by a surreal score and frequent dreamy forays into Christy’s handheld video camera. These create a story-like feel for brief moments, before the film plunges back into the next pressing crisis.
Don’t get me wrong. There’s an authentic Irish humour piercing this script and the earnestness of the two girls is truly a delight. As well as that, the growing but transient friendship with Mateo (Djimon Hounsou), the Basquiat-like artist downstairs, is rewarding for everyone.
But even when these little pieces of hope shine, even when Dad finally agrees to say goodbye to the ubiquitous Frankie, there’s a residual melancholy in this little family. This film can’t shake off the powerful sadness that defines it. America is still unwelcoming. A community of drug addicts and AIDS victims is still home. And opportunities are still scarce.
Directed by Jim Sheridan