In America: an American dream

Dec. 19, 2003, midnight | By Anna Benfield | 16 years, 5 months ago

An immigrant family moves to a cruddy upstairs apartment in a Manhattan building filled with drug addicts and prostitutes. But shockingly they are able to overcome adversity, poverty and family tragedy to find happiness and grow together as a family. This oversimplified plot summary might leave you thinking that the film you are about to read about will mark number 233 on your list of 2nd rate feel-good movies, but don't judge it too quickly. Despite the colorful and glossy backdrop, the Irish family becomes so real I feel pained at having to admit that they are only characters in a movie. The creative cinematography and unforgettable personalities in In America make it stand out from the crowd of movies vying for a place in your heart this holiday season.

The amazing family energy can perhaps be explained by family collaboration in the film's production. The semi-autobiographical movie is directed and written by Jim Sheridan with the assistance of his two daughters Naomi and Kirsten. Their fictional counterparts are played by sisters Emma and Sarah Bolger.

One by one we get to know the characters. The artsy, almost home video style shots of unidentifiable light formations are a tasteful and appropriate introduction to the film as Christy (Sarah Bolger) establishes herself as the narrator, quiet and more mature than her 10 years.

When the station wagon pulls up to the U.S. border immigration, Johnny (Paddy Considine) firmly reminds his daughters that they are "going on holiday," but the 6-year-old Ariel's (Emma Bolger) garrulous personality can hardly be suppressed. Ariel's smile and adorable Irish accent are impossible resist, and she will steal your heart from her first appearance.

As the family emerges from a tunnel into the heart of Manhattan, where Johnny plans to find a job acting, the magic and energy of the city overwhelm them with excitement. This sequence in downtown New York, like the seasonal changes throughout their year, is full of unmatched excitement and magic as seen in part through Christina's red stickered cam-corder.

But alas, all is not snow angels and milkshakes. As the plot progresses, the recent death of their only son and brother, Frankie, is revealed as a point of personal tragedy and conflict. When Johnny can't find a job and the family is having hard times financially, Sarah (Samantha Morton), Johnny and the girls express their grief but eventually come to peace in their own ways.

The girls are made fun of at school and life is sometimes rough in the neighborhood, but the film plays a good balance of real against ideal.

A great source of the family's hope and power to grow come from a most unlikely candidate. When the girls go trick-or-treating (a strange American tradition), they make a new friend who ultimately teaches them a great deal about life.

Unfortunately, make-up and design fail to make Morton look significantly different than she did as a precog in Minority Report. This became a frustrating distraction that inhibited my ability to suspend disbelief about Sarah's character. Underneath her fantastic acting as the protective yet passionate mother and wife, Morton's short hair especially kept her from being able to establish a believable new identity.

When the credits finally role on this masterful film, I was left wiping happy tears from my eyes. You might have to remind yourself that you don't need to fall in love and move to Manhattan to experience the richness of life. This unique collage-like film passionately shows us how to be alive without even leaving home.

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Anna Benfield. Anna Benfield is a CAP swimmer, field hockey and lacrosse goalie and diversity workshop leader. She loves biking, sailing, collages, the zoo and her little brother. More »

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