Great Films You Need To See – In America (2003)

This is my latest contribution to The Big Picture, the internationally recognised magazine and website that shows film in a wider context and is this month running a series of features and reviews with the theme of ‘migration’. This piece about Jim Sheridan’s 2003 deeply personal drama In America was written as part of The Big Picture’s Lost Classics strand, although I am including it within my list of Great Films You Need To See.

Making a change can be difficult at the best of times, but doing so as a way of beginning again following the tragic loss of a loved one is a challenge that almost breaks the Sullivans; the wounded family at the centre of Jim Sheridan’s achingly moving In America.

In America a real family affair, with a warmth and spirit that won't fail to move even the most stone-hearted cynics

In America a real family affair, with a warmth and spirit that won’t fail to move even the most stone-hearted cynics

The clan – dad Johnny (Paddy Considine), mum Sarah (Samantha Morton) and their two kids Christy and Ariel (real life sisters Sarah and Emma Bolger) – have made the decision to up sticks from Ireland and illegally start a new life in the land of the free via Canada.

The reason becomes clear when Johnny inadvertently responds to a U.S. border guard’s question over how many kids they have by saying “three”; only to be corrected by the softly spoken Sarah. Their young son Frankie, it transpires, has died from a brain tumour and despite moving to New York, the bright lights of the Big Apple can only distract the clan for so long from the cloud that has followed them to their new home.

The Sullivan clan - mum Sarah (Samantha Morton), dad Johnny (Paddy Considine) and kids Christy and Ariel (Sarah and Emma Bolger) in In America

The Sullivan clan – mum Sarah (Samantha Morton), dad Johnny (Paddy Considine) and kids Christy and Ariel (Sarah and Emma Bolger) in In America

They share a rundown tenement block with a ragtag bunch of misfits, most notably “the man who screams”, aka Mateo (Djimon Honsou, an actor whose range has sadly been restricted to stern-faced action movie roles of late); a reclusive Nigerian artist who pours the anger and despair he feels over his worsening health into his painting.

He’s brought out of his self-imposed monasticism by the angelic Christy and Ariel, who love their parents deeply but struggle to recognise their father as the same man who existed before their brother’s death.

Johnny (Paddy Considine) and Mateo (Djimon Hounsou) form a bond in In America

Johnny (Paddy Considine) and Mateo (Djimon Hounsou) form a bond in In America

Johnny is an actor unable to land a part because he’s been left emotionally numb since Frankie’s death and the desperation eating away at him to make things right spills out during a street carnival when a trivial game of chance takes on high stakes consequences as he puts the family’s limited finances on the line to win a toy for Ariel.

The script can’t resist symbolism, with Sarah’s pregnancy running parallel to Mateo’s worsening illness. The mysterious Mateo, meanwhile, comes dangerously close to fulfilling the ‘magical negro’ stereotype so beloved of American cinema; a noble and principled man who forms a bond with the Sullivans and helps Johnny to finally overcome the pain of Frankie’s death.

Johnny (Paddy Considine) is a man on the edge in In America

Johnny (Paddy Considine) is a man on the edge in In America

However, such is the heartfelt and convincing bond struck between the Sullivans – the Bolger sisters especially are a revelation – that you never feel manipulated and the shameless sentimentality that could so easily have derailed the picture is avoided by the sincerity of the cast and filmmakers.

Sheridan has spoken openly of how personal the project is to him (the film is dedicated to his brother Frankie, who died aged 10), while the fact the script was co-written by the director and his two daughters Naomi and Kirsten makes In America a real family affair, with a warmth and spirit that won’t fail to move even the most stone-hearted cynics.

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16 comments

  1. Jordan Dodd · October 12, 2015

    Never heard of this one, sounds interesting. Nice article

  2. ruth · October 12, 2015

    I saw this quite a while ago and was very impressed by both Considine and Morton. Too bad Djimon Honsou has been stuck in thankless action roles lately as he clearly could act.

    • Three Rows Back · October 13, 2015

      Having looked back on Honsou’s career, he’s starred in some really good stuff (he’s been Oscar nominated twice), so it’s a real shame he’s been reduced to supporting parts in blockbusters, usually playing baddies.

  3. vinnieh · October 12, 2015

    I hadn’t heard of this movie until now, your stellar review has me wanting to see it.

    • Three Rows Back · October 13, 2015

      Thank you! Well, if it means one person checks it out then I’ve done my job!

      • vinnieh · October 14, 2015

        You most certainly have.

  4. Jason Olshefsky · October 12, 2015

    I saw this at the High Falls Film Festival when it was released in 2003 ( http://jayceland.com/LunchNStuff/Archives/2003B13.html ). I loved it then but I want to go back and revisit it—partly because I saw it only once and was swept up in the festival experience, and also because I consider any opinion invalid after 10 years … particularly movie reviews! In any case, I’m glad you enjoyed it … it makes me want to see it that much more.

    • Three Rows Back · October 13, 2015

      Thank you for the feedback Jason. I like to revisit these films to see if they stand up. They don’t always, but In America is just as charming and the cast are excellent. I’ve read your festival piece; glad you enjoyed it! Well worth a second screening if you get chance.

  5. Stu · October 12, 2015

    Good to see this highlighted. I watched it a few years back on DVD and thoroughly enjoyed it, and agree with you about the cast performances. Their apartment is like a character in itself, from what I remember.

    • Three Rows Back · October 13, 2015

      Indeed it is Stu; there’s a great scene in which Considine drags an air conditioning unit up to the apartment if you remember. Very symbolic of the struggle they face. Give it a second watch if you get chance.

      • Stu · October 14, 2015

        I do remember it. Near the start, right? I would like to see this again, and I haven’t watched Morton in anything for ages, apart from Cosmopolis…but she’s only in that for about five minutes. I missed Miss Julie when it was on, but sounds like she is more of a supporting character in that anyway.

  6. Tom · October 13, 2015

    This sounds like something I should look into. Could be a rough ride for awhile but ultimately rewarding. Plus I haven’t seen Paddy Considine in near enough stuff yet. For some weird reason, I thought he looks different in these photos here. I thought he was a bit . . pudgier. . . hah. For lack of a better word.

    • Tom · October 13, 2015

      Nope, I’m totally thinking of Eddie Marsan. haha. Both were in The World’s End, either way. . .

      • Three Rows Back · October 13, 2015

        Never heard of that comparison before! Considine is an unappreciated actor for me, but then he’s never really gone in for Hollywood studio flicks (his most high profile part was as the journo in The Bourne Ultimatum). He’s done several Shane Meadows movies so he’ll always be gold for me.

  7. Mark Hobin · November 19, 2015

    I adore this film. I actually reference it in my review for Brooklyn, another optimistic tale about the experience of an immigrant in American life.

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