‘In America’ tells the story of an Irish family who move to early 80’s New York to look for a new life, haunted by the memory of their dead son Frankie. It is narrated by ten-year-old Christie, the elder of the two girls of the family. Parts of the film are shot with Christy’s prized camcorder, giving the film a documentary feel as she records the family’s introduction to Manhattan life, in what I found a very successful style for the film.
Their life in America is anything but easy however. The only place that they can find to live is an apartment block known locally as ‘the junkie building.’ Sarah, the mother of the family, takes a job in an ice cream parlour, while the girls’ father attends audition after audition in the hope of an acting job. The girls attend a Catholic school, where they are the only girls from Ireland, and struggle with the identity of the outsider. At the root of all their thoughts is Frankie, and although they have moved, they have not, and seemingly cannot, move on.
Although conscious of their differences, the two girls do become accustomed to their new life very quickly, charming everyone in the neighbourhood. The interaction between the serious Christy and outgoing Aerial is touching and funny, and provides many of the high points of the film.
This film deals with the big things: drugs, death, HIV, fear and self-hate. Given the subject matter of this film, it had the potential to be an extremely dark and depressing film, wallowing in the tragedy of all that can go wrong in life. However, part of writer and director Jim Sheridan’s success with this film comes from the child’s-eye view of things, where there is always some hope in what seems for Christy’s parents to be a hopeless situation.
Contributing to this feeling is the sense of the mystical; Christie believes that her dead brother grants her wishes, and she finds a soul mate in ‘the screaming man’, the tortured artist Mateo. He and the family share a bond that draws Mateo out of his solitude, and he supports the family in the ways that they need. One of the most interesting relationships that develops in the film is that between Mateo and Sarah. He cannot forget Frankie, and is angered by the growing relationship with his own family that Mateo has, and which he is incapable of himself.
The end of the film does not come as a particular surprise, but a different ending would have completely crushed the hope and predictions of Mateo and Christy. It reflects the hope that the family work so hard to keep alive. It is difficult not to be a bit mushy and sentimental about this film, although to be fair to it, the gritty nature of parts of the film do not really warrant it. It is just that the characters’ search for feeling inspires an empathetic reaction in the audience, and at least you will leave the cinema smiling.