With New York Minute still feverishly inhabiting the nation's cineplexes like an outbreak of junior high mono, now might be a good time to discuss In America. Like New York Minute, In America is set in the Big Apple. And also like New York Minute, In America stars two sisters. But Emma and Sarah Bolger -- with their wide gray eyes, pale Irish complexions and mousy brown hair -- are no Mary-Kate and Ashley. They are, in fact, that rarity in American cinema -- completely ordinary children.
As the two daughters of an illegal immigrant family just arrived in New York, the Bolger sisters are the lens through which the viewer experiences everything -- from the giddy magic of Times Square (the lights, the hookers, the hundreds of cars at once) to the humid squalor of Hell's Kitchen, where the girls want to "keep" the pigeons roosting in their new apartment. Oldest daughter Christy (Sarah Bolger) uses her shiny red camcorder both to document the family's first year in America and to memorialize her younger brother Frankie, whose death has precipitated the family's move to New York for a better life. While such a scenario has the potential for being unbearably heavy, director Jim Sheridan (who wrote the script with his two daughters Naomi and Kirsten) focuses on the gentle moments that keep a family going -- two girls playing in the sanctuary of a goldfish-ringed bathtub, the tired-eyed affection between a husband and wife (Paddy Considine and Samantha Morton).
Their cruddy tenement building is rife with danger, not the least of which is the mysterious screaming man living behind the door painted "Keep Out." As the girls invade his world one Halloween night, it's discovered that he is an artist, and that he keeps a refrigerator full of medicine bottles. It's here that In America walks its most precarious line: The story flirts with elements of both "jungle fever" and colonialism. The little Irish girls soothe and tame the savage black man (Djimon Hounsou), and the black man in turn exudes a palpable threat and sexuality. It's worth noting, however, that In America never fully crosses over into mawkish or cringe-y territory. Like Capra before him, Sheridan is an unabashedly sentimental storyteller whose love of small moments transforms what could be a predictable story into something sweet and sublime. Sheridan's message comes through like an unexpected kiss, reminding us that the thing that we crave most in our lives -- love -- is also the thing that feels most terrifyingly risky.
Publication date: 05/27/04