In America is a beautiful film about family.

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Nov. 25 2003 8:01 PM

In America, the Beautiful

Jim Sheridan composes a polyphonic rhapsody to family.

Still from In America.
Moppets take Manhattan

"When you have a holy thing happenin', you don't mess with it." That's what the Irish director Jim Sheridan (My Left Foot [1989]) told a radio interviewer about the filming of his semi-autobiographical drama InAmerica (Fox Searchlight Pictures); and, watching the movie, I know what he meant. There's something about this picture that transcends its clunky patches and occasionally woolly-headed mysticism—something intangible that comes from a gifted filmmaker working out of his own experience but ceding the reins to his actors and co-writers (two of his three daughters, Naomi and Kirsten, collaborated on the script). In America means to be a rhapsody to the strength of his family and ends up a rhapsody to his filmmaking family. It becomes what it's about—and that's a glorious metamorphosis.

Sheridan came with his clan to New York in the early '80s, when he was trying to make a living as an actor and playwright. (The era of the film itself is indeterminate—which seems to throw some literal-minded people.) In the first scene, Johnny (Paddy Considine) and Sarah (Samantha Morton) and their two daughters, 11-year-old Christy and 6-year-old Ariel (played by real-life sisters, Sarah and Emma Bolger), arrive at the border from Canada, still grieving over the death in Ireland of their youngest child, Frankie, who fell down a staircase and died, two years later, of a brain tumor. Johnny and Sarah lie to customs officials that they're on holiday, and Christy uses one of several magic wishes she claims to have on reserve (courtesy of the dead Frankie) to get her family safely into the country. That magic-wish motif continues throughout the film but not in a way that softens its spine. Christy's wishes are used at the bleakest possible moments, when the harshest outcome has already been glimpsed: In America is a fairy tale astride an abyss.

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The girls are thrilled to take a tunnel under the water into Manhattan—to Hell's Kitchen, where they find a sprawling but rubbish-strewn flat in a building full of junkies and poor people. The New York of In America is neither paradise nor hell; it's more of an exotic jungle, with warm Afrocentric colors and infectious pop music to leaven the misery. When the family glimpses its ghastly new quarters, in which a flock of pigeons has made itself at home, the horror is dispelled by little Ariel. She asks: Can they keep the birds?

Reportedly, Sheridan wrote a draft of the story and gave it to his now-grown daughters for advice: They'd been there, after all. The daughters rewrote it and gave it back to him with the character of the father reduced to almost nothing. So Sheridan decided to split the difference and put himself back in—to a point. And that's one of the things that makes In America so special: that it has several distinct points of view and no center of gravity. It's vivaciously polyphonic. There is even a second lens—the video camera of budding filmmaker Christy, who moves in so tight on the characters that she seems to want to pry into their souls.

The movie is an odd weave—loosely plotted, but with one gorgeously sustained sequence after another. Early on, the family endures its first 100-degree July, "and a new word: humidity." Desperate to bring some relief to his wife and kids, the impulsive dad finds a huge old air-conditioner and staggers through the streets and up the stairs with the thing—whereupon he discovers that its plug won't fit into the wall. Twenty-five cents short for an adapter, he pleads with a bodega proprietor (whom he calls "Mister American Dream") to accept an IOU, then resorts to collecting empty beer bottles. The bliss of the family's first burst of cooled air is stunning—as is the moment when the entire building short-circuits from the overload.

Ditching their dark apartment for the movie theater, where it's "lovely and cool," the family wallows in Steven Spielberg's E.T. (1982), after which they spy an E.T. doll at a street fair. In the film's most harrowing scene, the desperate-to-be-a-hero Johnny wagers the family's entire bankroll to win the $30 trophy. This whole section of the film is capped with a thunderstorm, during which Johnny and Sarah conceive another child while, below them, their reclusive neighbor Mateo (Djimon Hounsou), a painter, attacks his work, slices his hand, and dribbles blood onto the canvas. The cross-cutting is mystifying—until later, when we learn that Mateo is very sick and that his rage to live is somehow connected to the survival of the new child.

That's a stretch, to say the least, and Sheridan courts ridiculousness with the fierce, glowering black man, who softens when the children pound on his door in Halloween costumes—and who senses, when they enter his lair, the presence of their dead brother. It's Hounsou's beauty that carries you over this hump: He's such a magnificent creature that there has to be magic involved somewhere. His scenes of communion with Morton's Sarah are somewhat underdramatized, but she's a strange and fascinating creature, too. She's meant to be mysteriously fertile, yet her skin is as translucent as a fetus's. No wonder her pregnancy is so fragile: She could be giving birth to herself.

The miracle of the movie is the Bolger sisters, who are so direct and matter-of-fact that they hardly seem to be acting. But their simplicity is radiant. Sheridan has said that on every shot he let one of the sisters call "Action!" and the other "Cut!" and that the two little girls moved around the backstage world of the production as if they ran the show. So it makes poetic sense that Considine's Johnny—the stand-in for Sheridan—should come to seem peripheral. Suspicious, closed-off, endlessly in sorrow for his lost son, Johnny is upstaged by his own daughters: He has to learn to feel to become, once more, the father they remember. We know that Johnny will let go of his grief because we know that the director let go of his: This movie is proof. Besides, these girls' demand for attention is well-nigh impossible to refuse. Not everything is possible in Sheridan's America. But with this cast, In America, everything is beautiful.

David Edelstein is Slate's film critic. You can read his reviews in "Reel Time" and in "Movies." He can be contacted at slatemovies@slate.com.