Judge Mark Van Hook praises Jim Sheridan's touching, sentimental partly-autobiographical masterpiece.
"Don't 'little girl' me. I've been carrying this family on my back for over a year, ever since Frankie died. He was my brother too. It's not my fault that he's dead. It's not my fault that I'm still alive."—Christy (Sarah Bolger), In America
One of 2003's very best films comes to DVD in much the same way as it was released into theaters—quietly, unceremoniously, but with its huge, beating heart on its sleeve. Jim Sheridan's deeply personal masterpiece will likely scare away those easily turned off by the kind of honest sentiment that it revels in from the first frame to the last, but those open to its pure, unabashed emotionalism will find themselves moved beyond words. I sure was.
Facts of the Case
The Sullivans are Johnny and Sarah (Paddy Considine and Samantha Morton) and their two young daughters, Christy and Ariel (Sarah and Emma Bolger), an Irish family immigrating to New York City to escape the crushing loss of their only son and brother, Frankie, whose death has left the family in a state of sustained shock. Johnny finds himself unable to feel, which leaves him crippled in his attempts to find acting work. Sarah puts on a happy face for the girls, but it barely masks a deep, unrelenting pain.
Upon arrival in America, the family faces a number of hardships, both financial and emotional, but they manage to survive through their deep, unyielding love for each other, as well as their chance meeting with Mateo (Djimon Hounsou), an African artist living in their building who hides a devastating secret of his own. And when the opportunity for redemption finally arrives in the form of Sarah's unexpected pregnancy, the Sullivans are forced to summon all of their strength to face the possibility of yet another family tragedy.
Sentiment, not sentimentality, is how writer/director Billy Wilder once described the key to eliciting emotion through cinema, and that's exactly what Jim Sheridan understands with In America. To say that the movie is a tearjerker is an understatement—in fact, I don't know if I've ever been so emotionally affected by a single film before. And yet the emotion is real, not manipulative, and comes from a deep understanding of what it is to feel. I've heard all sorts of nitpicky arguments against the film, with some calling the Mateo character a stereotype, or accusing Sheridan of prettying up the Hell's Kitchen sector of NYC too much, thereby removing the realism from the location. But this is a fable, not a documentary, and when thrown up against the simple, devastating power of the narrative and performances, these arguments just seem all the more petty and insignificant.
Sheridan's film is partly autobiographical, with a screenplay co-written by himself and his two daughters, Naomi and Kirsten (represented onscreen by the characters of Christy and Ariel, respectively). Certain elements of the story, such as the death of the young child Frankie, are taken from Sheridan's own childhood (his brother, also named Frankie, died at the age of 10, and the film is dedicated to his memory), while others are taken from his own experiences immigrating to New York in 1982 with his wife and two daughters. It's important to note, however, is that the film has a timeless quality and resonance that make us forget that any of the events that occur in the narrative actually happened in life. Sheridan has taken his own experiences and woven them effortlessly into a magical story of hope and deep, unrelenting love that, rather than feeling like a docudrama, actually ends up feeling more like a fairy tale.
The greatest success of the film is in the note-perfect casting of the four leads who, despite the fairy tale quality to the narrative, never for a second feel like anything but a real family, struggling to confront their own pain and hardship but surmounting both through their deep sense of familial love. Casting two sisters to play Christy and Ariel must have helped enormously in this, as they already have a built-in relationship, but even so, the combined efforts of the cast achieves a kind of tough, earthy intimacy that just can't be faked. Paddy Considine plays Johnny as a man who does his best to help his family by winning carnival prizes, fixing things, and taking them for ice cream, but since the death of his son is unable to share his own feelings with them. Samantha Morton, who may have the most expressive eyes of any actress since Maria Falconetti, imbues Sarah with a quiet, lyrical grace, and though her character in truth doesn't say much, her eyes tell the entire story (she earned a well-deserved Best Actress Oscar nomination for the role). And despite their age, the Bolger sisters each give unique, adult-like performances, so that each has a well-defined role in the family, and they're not just cute kids along for the ride. It's rare for a film to hit on such perfection in the casting, but that's exactly what In America achieves.
On the same note, Djimon Hounsou is a revelation as Mateo, the African artist who befriends the family. As an actor, Hounsou has an enormous physical presence that serves him well early on in the film, when he is known only to the family as "the man who screams," but that physicality soon gives way to heartbreaking kindness and gentility. The character is a bit of a stereotype (the magical black man who miraculously helps the poor white people), but the actor pours so much soul into the performance that it transcends any pithy complaints. Hounsou's career trajectory since his supposed breakthrough in 1998's Amistad has been a relatively disappointing one, as that early success has given way only to meager sidekick roles (he was criminally underused in Gladiator, for instance). Now, having received a well-deserved Best Supporting Oscar nomination for his work here, it appears that he's finally receiving the kind of roles that best utilize his unique talents.
And then there is the film's ending, which I will not describe here, but of which I will say only this: it is so emotionally wrenching and so deeply, miraculously uplifting that it deserves its place among the great emotional finales in cinema history, right up there alongside the final scene of Chaplin's City Lights. The family has been to hell and back together and all four members have emerged from their experience stronger than ever. They learn that the death of a loved one can never be forgotten, but life must be lived, not survived, and the only way to accomplish this is to not dwell on the past but look towards the future. The words "instant classic" are bandied around so much these days that they have virtually lost their meaning, but believe me when I say that In America deserves the distinction.
Fox's DVD of Sheridan's film presents the movie in both full-screen and anamorphic widescreen versions on separate sides of a flipper disc. Both versions look sensational, and help to highlight what a deceptively great-looking film this is. Director of photography Declan Quinn's cinematography and lighting effects are simply magnificent—never flashy, but always serving the story in the absolute best way possible. Widescreen is obviously the way to go here, as it's the only way to get the full effect of Quinn's exquisite framing, and the transfer included is impeccable. I noticed very little edge enhancement throughout, and color saturation is right on, showcasing a pristine source print without a speck of dirt or debris.
The disc's audio is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround, though in truth it's not much more than a glorified 2.0 track, with the rear channels used mostly just for music and a few ambient effects. Because of the dialogue-driven nature of the film, this is perfectly forgivable, although at times I found myself straining slightly to hear some of the softer bits of dialogue (a problem I also remember having in my theatrical viewing of the film). But it's hardly a crippling problem, and for the most part the audio is just fine. Alternate 2.0 tracks are provided in French and Spanish 2.0, with subtitles available in English and Spanish.
The disc's supplements are spread across the two sides, with each side containing the same wry, self-effacing audio commentary by writer/director Sheridan. Sheridan begins the track by referring to himself as "the ego-maniac who made an entire film about himself," which immediately clues the viewer into the fact that this isn't going to be an exercise in Filmmaking 101. He spends a good bit of the track discussing different influences on the film (example: the Mateo character is a mix between a real artist his family befriended and Jean-Michel Basquiat). Sheridan also manages to clear up some of the misconceptions about the film, such as the idea that it's set in 1982, around the time he and his family immigrated to the US. In actuality, he states that he didn't mean to set it in any particular time, and though there are certain cultural touches that might place the film in a certain time period (such as the family's theatrical viewing of E.T.), it wasn't intended this way. His tone is conversational and fatherly, and though he occasionally tends to ramble on, in the end it's an enormously likable track.
Included on the widescreen side are nine deleted scenes, which can be viewed with or without commentary by Sheridan. Most of these are either alternate or lengthened versions of scenes already in the film, though there are three or four entirely new scenes that were snipped due to pacing issues. The standout here is an alternate ending, which runs on a bit longer than the one in the film and includes a slightly altered voiceover. I think most will agree that the ending included in the film is much more effective but the alternate makes for a welcome curiosity.
On the full-screen side, there's a featurette entitled "The Making of In America," which is little more than a promotional doc and runs only about three or four minutes, so that you end up wondering why they even bothered to include it. I would have loved to see interviews with the rest of the Sheridan family and a more in-depth look into the making of the film but, alas, what we get here is just piffle.
All in all, a nice set of features for a great, quiet little film.
I don't really have much more to say about In America, other than that it just goes to prove that the best films are those that don't merely blitz our senses but those that penetrate our souls. At the risk of sounding cliché, if you don't somehow find yourself moved by the film, then you'd better get someone to check your pulse, because you're probably dead. I can't recommend a purchase more highly.
A classic. Acquitted on all counts. Case dismissed.
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Scales of Justice
• Audio Commentary by Writer/Director Jim Sheridan
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