You might expect from the man who made "My Left Foot" and "In the Name of the Father" that a movie called "In America" would be something epic, gritty, grounded in historical struggle. In fact, Jim Sheridan's wondrous new movie, which he wrote with his daughters Naomi and Kirsten, is none of these things. It's a lyrical, intimately personal account of an immigrant Irish family newly arrived in contemporary New York, loosely based on his own experience. But the movie's slight, anecdotal structure is deceptive; you wouldn't guess how big an emotional wallop it packs.
The head of the family is Johnny (Paddy Considine), an aspiring actor whose liveliness and determination are but a thin curtain over a hollowed-out heart, which has never recovered from the accidental death of his son. Sarah (Samantha Morton), his wife, is equally haunted by the tragedy, but she's the one with the strength to hold the family together when Johnny, who's taken work as a cabdriver, comes home jobless from every audition. He can't act because he can't feel. On the edge of poverty, they and their two daughters, 10-year-old Christy and 6-year-old Ariel (sisters Sarah and Emma Bolger), move into a huge but decrepit apartment in a tenement full of junkies.
This may sound grim, but the film is surprisingly light on its feet. The events are filtered through the eyes of the girls, and they see Manhattan as an enchanted isle. "Do You Believe in Magic?" plays under their first glimpse of Times Square, and the girls definitely do. Cinematographer Declan Quinn's warm, scruffily poetic images capture the feel of places seen and felt for the first time. We're seeing the story through the haze of memory--the sight of Christy's camcorder places the story in the present, but it feels like New York 20 years ago--which buffers the pain of the family's desperation and loss. Johnny is so determined to provide for his girls, he recklessly wagers all he has to win an E.T. doll at a fairground stand, a sequence as suspenseful as anything in a summer action movie. No special effects needed.
There's one crucial character who's not in the family. Behind one of the heavily locked doors in their building lurks a figure of mystery, whom the girls dub "The Screaming Man." Trick-or-treating on Halloween, the girls finally get a glimpse of him: he's an artist named Mateo (played by the imposing Djimon Hounsou), and he's screaming, we come to learn, because he's dying of AIDS. Mateo, who becomes a kind of fairy godfather to the family, is Sheridan's riskiest creation: he's the catalyst who helps the family heal its scars, and there's a whiff of sentimental contrivance about the role. Then again, one could argue that he seems idealized because we're seeing him through 10-year-old eyes.
Sheridan is justly lauded as a director of actors (Daniel Day-Lewis won his Oscar in "My Left Foot"). Here he makes the ensemble his star, and each member shines. The uncanny Morton is so versatile she seems newly discovered in every role: here she exudes a powerfully centered physicality that plays beautifully off Considine's darting, quicksilver charm. They convey the push and pull of a real marriage. Perhaps most astonishing are the luminous Sarah and Emma Bolger, who make most child actors look cloyingly artificial. They act so well they seem not to be acting at all.
The end of "In America" is startlingly moving. The test of a movie shouldn't be whether it makes you cry--it's not that hard, and bad movies can do it as well as good ones. But the feelings Sheridan evokes in the last scenes are earned: they encapsulate the whole story. And they stay with you long after it's over.