Director: Jim Sheridan
Writers: Jim Sheridan, Naomi Sheridan, Kirsten Sheridan
Stars: Paddy Considine, Samantha Morton, Djimon Hounsou
“What America comes to your mind as a poor immigrant family with two small children drives into Manhattan, rents an apartment in a ‘junkie’s building’ and starts looking for work? And what does it take to believe in the one you see In America?”
A young girl’s voice starts the film, promising a child’s tale that sounds like a modern version of Jack in the Beanstalk’s magical beans – and conjures up the same measure of disbelief. She’s recently lost a baby brother who she is sure has given her three secret wishes to help guide the family through the transition from Ireland to Manhattan (via Canada). Her younger sister is an irrepressible, angel of a child who, if faith in the three wishes weren’t enough, would make anyone a believer in fairy tales. Their mom’s been a teacher but, of course, lacks credentials to teach in New York, and ends up with a job in a neighborhood cafŽ. She carries a heavy mother’s guilt for the death of her son and, while committed to a stiff upper lip for the sake of her daughters, drags a sack of gloom. Their dad, a wannabe actor and good guy, drives a cab part-time and struggles with his inability to get in touch with the deep feelings he deems necessary to succeed in New York theatre. In fact, the plight of this family seems more determined by frozen grief than by their very real poverty. And the thawing of that grief is the tale Jim Sheridan and his daughter, Naomi Sheridan choose to tell, giving Manhattan a dress of decency that is refreshing if a bit fanciful.
Indeed, lit up like an amusement park, the city seems to welcome the family as they drive in. People on the street greet Ariel (Emma Bolger), the younger daughter who hangs out the window of the car waving her hand and smiling with delight. Sheridan skips the days of looking for an apartment, the nights of everyone sleeping in the car. And keeps the child’s view as they arrive at what the older daughter describes as ‘the only apartment building in Man-hattan that will take kids’. A large black man looks down upon them from an upstairs window. Crackheads offer to ‘watch’ their car. And Christy (Sarah Bolger), the oldest daughter, nicknames the building ‘The House of Screams’ because recurrent moans of anguish emanate from the walls as they enter. Five, six, seven stories up they find a pigeon infested crash pad with scant plumbing, less electricity, broken windows and, probably, a smell better not known. They’ll have to sell the car to pay the rent. But, through a child’s eye, it’s all sheer possibility. “No, you can’t keep the pigeons,” answers the dad when Ariel asks. Contrasting Ariel’s enthusiastic embrace of ‘what is’ with the worried one of grown ups will be a continuing theme. She’s full of ‘beans’, ready to trade the cow and take her chances on an unknown future. When their dad manages to get water to come from an encrusted showerhead, both girls squeal with delight, want to stay in the bathtub all day as if they’d won a ticket to a water park. Christy, just enough older than Ariel to be cognizant of their true circumstances, swings from a quiet retreat behind her camcorder to an occasional romp with Ariel.
The fear of these children being molested, maligned or humiliated can never be far away in the audience’s mind as they go about their business. It tags along with each event. This family could go down in a second. Or up. The roller coaster of getting through a day takes them up and down. On Halloween, it’s time to climb the beanstalk. There’ve been indications all along that another spirit inhabits the world in which this family lives. In a wild, seeing what can’t really be seen moment, the large black man in the apartment behind a door marked ‘keep away’, drops a bare hand on a canvas covered in blood – or oil paint. Be it a malevolent or benevolent hand of a giant that holds their fate, fear shakes the ground when mom gets pregnant, dad has to take a job, and the kids go to school. Mom (Sarah Morton) becomes obsessed by an insecurity that she will fail this baby as she has the other. Dad (Paddy Considine) performs heroic tasks to make up for being a poor provider, pulling an abandoned air conditioner on a dolly straight down the street in traffic – and then hauls it five floors up in his arms! Mom and dad don’t fight at each other. They put their spines together, aching or prickly, to keep the family going. But when the girls, in homemade Halloween costumes, rouse smirky laughs from classmates at school, the parents are at a loss about what to do. Ariel and Christy react to the prejudice as if to the chant of a family game, “Fee, Fie, Foe, Fum, I smell the blood of an Irish woman”. They transcend fear, raise their courage to the sticking point and decide to become Americans.
On the way home from school, Christy describes ‘trick or treat’ to her family. “In America, you can’t ask, you must threaten to get what you want.” So, out they go, ‘trick or treating’ in their building. They knock on those closed doors behind which the unspeakable occurs. But no one answers. The girls are not discouraged. They yell louder, pound harder and, finally, behind the door with the yellow scrawled message, ‘keep away’, they hear a faint noise. Thrilled, they climb faster up the beanstalk, until HE looks down on them. The huge black man from the first day. Their parents peek out cautiously to see what’s happening, warily giving the girls permission to be on their own. The reclusive painter meets the mother’s eyes and an unexpected, unexplainable and unmistakable trust passes between them, swirling a soft fairy dust around them all. Mateo (Djimon Hounsou), for that’s the name of this prince of darkness from down under who is dying of AIDS, exudes the gentleness of a wounded giant. He is moved to tears by the girl’s ease with him. He has resisted contact with the outside world. And, Ariel, true to her angelic form, lays her slight white hand on his large dark shoulder without a trace of fear. “Are you crying”, she asks. “Why did you let us in?” And Mateo matches her, “When luck comes knocking at your door, you can’t turn it away.” Thus, the girls free the giant from his self-imposed exile, inviting the fearsome fellow into their family and turning their luck toward the light.
Not a bad backdrop for a fairy tale where mystery is as much a player as any circumstance. African meets Irish on the streets of New York for a profound confrontation between black and white, dark and light, dread death and risky living. While dying, Mateo revives the spirit that once lived freely in this family when their dead son, Frankie, was with them. Frankie died of a brain tumor, an invisible killer that stole their happiness, leaving them angry, sad and massively guilt-ridden. Now Mateo enters the picture, endangered as Frankie was, arousing all the same mixed emotions. Mom is reinvigorated but crazed with feelings of inadequacy. The girls jump for joy but know it’s to be short-lived. Dad attempts to push him out, paranoid about being tricked. He accuses Mateo of trying to steal his wife, his girls and his home behind his back. “You want my place? You love my wife?” But Mateo meets the moment with a fierce cry for help. “No, I am not in love with your wife. I am in love with you. I am in love with your kids, your unborn child. I am in love with your life – and your wife, yes, of course. I am in love with anything that lives.” Spirit of one land meets the soul of another; energetically, an exchange is made as sure as a cow was traded for a handful of beans.
And thus we get the answer to the question of what America is being imagined in In America. It is an America that lives, streams on the streets of cities in human beings of all sorts. And while a specter of death definitely hovers, it’s not the vision. There is a bridge, a tunnel, a way to cross back and forth between the real world and the world of possibility that – somehow – makes all and any life worthy of praise. As surely as E.T. returned home safely, as surely as Mateo crossed the moon on a bicycle with Frankie, as surely as immigrants come to Manhattan and find – somehow – childcare, jobs and friends In America, beans sprout. Returning from a devastating loss means taking a chance, feeling all kinds of feelings again, returning to the gifts of life. In America trades cynicism for the magic of children’s dreams and delivers an adventure, a challenge and an eye opener to healing grief.