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MRQE Top Critic

Jaffa

Jaffa views the Israeli/Palestinian conflict through the lens of young love. —Matt Anderson (DVD review...)

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My mother’s latest favorite genre is “movies where nothing happens.” What she means is that she likes movies like The Station Agent, where the plot is how people change, and not what happens to them.

She’s sure to love In America, about an Irish family moving to a magical island called Manhattan, told from the point of view of a ten-year-old girl.

Driving In from Ireland

The Sullivan girls look at life In America
The Sullivan girls look at life In America

Written by Jim Sheridan and his daughters Naomi and Kirsten, and based on their own experiences, In America follows a family of four Irish emigrants arriving in New York.

Why did they leave Ireland? Why did they choose New York? If they’re coming from Ireland, how come they’re driving a station wagon across a land border? These questions are never raised and never answered. Except for little Frankie, who died, we don’t know anything about life before Manhattan for the Sullivan family.

We do know that Johnnie (Paddy Considine) is an actor and that Sara (Samantha Morton) would be a teacher if she could. Instead she works at Heaven, the ice cream parlor downstairs, while Johnnie drives taxis and goes to auditions.

Settling In

The movie is told from the point of view of Ariel and Christy (Emma and Sarah Bolger), who are about six and ten, respectively. Christy, who looks at the world through her red plastic camcorder, often narrates, although the movie also includes scenes she isn’t privy to.

The family moves into a rat-hole apartment, but not knowing any better, the girls take it in stride. All they see is the big apartment and the fresh coat of paint Dad and Mum give the place. Another family would worry about the junkies and transvestites, but the girls just see New Yorkers while their parents see affordable rent.

In America is a movie where “nothing happens,” but things do change. Just settling into the house takes lots of screen time. During their first American Halloween, Ariel and Christy meet a new friend, Mateo (Djimon Hounsou), an artist who lives downstairs. And in spite of medical warnings against it, Johnnie and Sara conceive another child, unconsciously to exorcise the ghost of Frankie, who haunts the Sullivans’ thoughts in this new land.

Wonderstruck Eyes

In America is a movie that believes in magic. When the family first arrives in Manhattan, the glowing skyline looks like the Fourth of July, particularly from the back seat of a station wagon with your sister sitting next to you. The ramshackle tenement they move into and its desperate denizens have no power to scare these girls. They are fed and loved, and that’s all that matters. Director Sheridan does a great job of portraying the world through the innocent wonderstruck eyes of a child. Even death is a transformation, not an end. Nothing can faze these girls.

It would be easy for this type of movie to become cloying or sachharine, but remarkably, it manages to stay above such complaints. It is smug. The perfect adorability of the girls is a little too prideful. All parents think their children are perfect, and this movie is blind to all but the most flattering traits of Christy and Ariel. But in the end Sheridan wins us over. We do care what happens to the family. We adopt the girls and wish them well like favorite nieces.

Endings

The movie loses some momentum toward the end. One can feel the need for conflict and resolution in the otherwise plotless screenplay. Sheridan introduces some artificial drama. Someone needs a blood transfusion, which is presented as a risky, complicated medical procedure. The scene is deliberately murky, an excuse to try to wring a little tension out of the audience.

But the movie finds its center at the end, finishing the story by uniting Frankie and Mateo and all of the Sullivans on the balcony of their New York home. Christy uses her third and final wish from Frankie’s ghost to give her family — and our movie — closure.

My friend, moved by the film’s good heart, said she hadn’t cried so much at the movies in a long time.