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Every once in a while, you get a simple and beautiful movie that touches you with great characters, and deep truths about life packaged in a very simple and accessible way. In America (2002) is such a film that will delight the entire family even if the themes presented are often more mature than what would be safely considered family-oriented material.
Johnny (Paddy Considine) and Sarah (Samantha Morton) are a young married couple from Ireland who are trying to make it big by going to the US. They come through Canada and settle in New York City with their two young daughters, Christy and Ariel (Sarah and Emma Bolger). Johnny is an aspiring actor and auditions for roles while he finds various odd jobs in order to make ends meet. He eventually settles as a cab driver. Sarah helps too by taking a job as a waitress in an ice-cream parlor just across the street where they live. Ariel looks at the world with wide hopeful eyes and simply sees no evil anywhere. Her innocent naivete and simplicity carries the whole family to great heights: no matter how hard life is, there is always hope and laughter. Christy however is a much more mature, and perhaps darker, person. About 8, maybe 10 years old, she constantly has her camcorder with her and unrelentlessly records everything that happens to the family with a keen eye for details. This family has actually gone through a lot of trauma. Their move to America and NYC is a physical manifestation of their desire to move on, and let past troubles behind. You see, they had a third child, a son who at 3 died after an accident falling down the stairs. Sarah, who can no longer have children is longing so hard for her dead child. He was a fighter, an amazing kid, and his death left a huge big gap behind. Johnny is much more stoic and plays the role of the man of the family well, but underneath, you can tell it's eating him up too. Throughout the story, Christy acts as the emotional adult, acting as a cushion for all through the hard times.
Soon after they move into a crumbling building, they rapidly make friends throughout the neighborhood. They meet in particular with Mateo (Djimon Hounsou), a black man dying of AIDS who spends the remaining time on the planet to create art and feel life. There is an immediate bond between Sarah, the girls and Mateo and he becomes almost like family to them, even if Johnny doesn't seem too comfortable. They all also get involved with the lives of others, including questionable characters and junkies, who also live in the same building. In the meantime, Sarah miraculously gets pregnant, but the doctors only have the poorest of prognostics regarding her chances and even advise her to get rid of the baby because of the dangers it represents to her health. She decides to keep the baby and chances it.
This is one of the best movies i have seen in recent memories. It presents you with fantastic characters that seemingly nothing can abate. Their joy of life, and hope that in the end, everything will be alright, is enough for them to go through life, loving each other, in spite of the tragedies and difficulties that have hit them. I mentioned at the beginning of this review that i believed this to be a family movie. Yes, there are some very emotional moments in the movie, and the story deals with tough subjects such as dying of AIDS and the death of a child. But it's hard to describe how in spite of all that, the movie remains very beautiful, honest, touching, hopeful and possesses the purity of a child. This is the most impressive thing in the whole movie. Told through the eyes of Christy and Ariel primarily, the movie remains very pure. In this way, this movie reminded me of other films such as To Kill A Mockingbird (1962) and Night Of The Hunter, The (1955) which, in spite of their subject matters, remain very beautiful because they are told through the eyes of young children.
The writing is very strong in conveying the feelings of the girls, and all the other characters. It successfully also creates a wonderful sense of New York City, in spite of its blemishes. The family moves into a dilapidated building, and yet, their home is a palace. The neighborhood is filled with questionable characters and junkies, but they manage to make friends and connect with many of them. Johnny tries to make it big and life is tough for him, but he still manages to find odd jobs and make a living. The message of hope permeates every nook and cranny of the story.
Performance wise, this film could have easily gone to mediocrity land very quickly without the right people. Here, the ensemble cast is truly magnificent. Samantha Morton is absolutely fantastic and is a pleasure to watch her do her thing any time. Paddy Considine is also fantastic and conveys all the nuances troubles that lurk under his skull even if he tries his best to project a strong and optimistic paternal aura. The girls, Sarah and Emma Bolger, are so natural and wonderful that they definitely make the movie even more potent. The innocense of the movie rests entirely on their choulders, and the fact that they are sisters in real life only adds to their complicity on film. Finally, Djimon Hounsou is impeccable as usual.
Technically, the film is also very good. The cinematography of New York City is wonderful and the overall art direction is very detailed and realistic. This movie contains a lot of rather emotional material and it needed a particular look in order to make it more bearable, without lowering its impact. New York City, the building and the neighborhood where they live all look very poetic and surreal at times. It's as if they all live in some fairy tale. Being myself a person who deeply loves New York City and often feels that way about the city too, i loved this movie even more because of it. On the music side, i was somewhat disappointed. I key very strongly into the music of films, and in this one, there wasn't much to hang on to. It was not bad, and often supported the story well, but it lacked some energy and well defined melodies, rhythms or harmonies, something to be remembered by.
Jim Sheridan, the director is definitely no slouch. His previous efforts include the great In The Name Of The Father (1993). Nevertheless, i felt at times that he could have gone further with the story which is afterall a fairly common story about Immigrants moving to America. But based on those premises, he managed to create a sense of wonder through the excellent writing (he is a co-writer). It may feell unfair, but i felt so floored by the detailed writing, wonderful art direction and cinematography, and superb acting, that it almost felt like the director had it too easy. I know it's not entirely true, but at times, i wondered how much of him transpired through the movie at the directing level. But then again, maybe it was his genius here to step aside and let all the other elements speak unaffected by his ways. It's a strange feeling.
All in all, In America is a fantastic film that left me very "emotional". In spite of its tough subjects, it is told with the innocense of young children, and as such, possesses a wonderful quality that i think is appropriate for tweeners with proper parental guidance. It's definitely not a movie i would find worthy of an R-rating, but i would agree my standards are much more relaxed than those of the MPAA. Nevertheless, this film has undeniable strengths thanks to its top notch performances, wonderful rendition of New York City, and a story that even though is't fairly common, is milked to its maximum through clever, insightful, deep and detailed writing. This film will make you happy to be alive, and will hopefully make you look at life with the eyes of a child again.
- Laurent Hasson