In America
a film by Jim Sheridan
written by Jim, Kristen and Naomi Sheridan


The new film from Jim Sheridan, writer and director of "My Left Foot," "In The Name Of The Father," "The Boxer," and "The Field" is a semi-autobiographical tale penned with the assistance of his two daughters, Naomi and Kirsten. It is a moving story of the family's recovery from tragedy and transformation in a new country, beautifully filmed by Declan Quinn, but it suffers from a lack of editorial oversight that might have made it a little less sentimental and predictable.

Film makers are rarely at their best when all restraints are removed, and Sheridan, who has written and told others' stories masterfully without resort to clichˇs and emotional manipulation clearly lets his feeling for and close connection with the material here get the better of his artistic judgement. The fact that he was writing in consort with his two daughters, whom it could be difficult for him to effectively criticize, may have compounded the problem. At any rate, the finished film has the makings of fine memoir, but is damaged by a somewhat labored sentimentality.

The story is told from the point of view of the eldest daughter, Christy (Sarah Bolger) an eleven-year -old with a precocious but not precious insight into her family's damaged dynamics. Christy's comments and observations provide a useful contrast to those of the adults. The adults - Christy's parents Johnny and Sarah played by Paddy Considine and Samantha Morton - are self-deceiving and self-absorbed.

Johnny wants to break into acting, and allows the rest of the family to sacrifice their security and stability to move into a junkie-infested Brooklyn tenement while he searches for his "break." Sarah's selfless devotion to him verges on the masochistic - she apparently has no career or personal aspirations for herself other than to be the mother of Johnny's children. She takes a waitressing job to support the family while Johnny stays home to take care of the kids and go to auditions.

Eventually Johnny gets a job as a night cab driver but his acting is hampered by the fact that he is emotionally cut-off as a result of the death of his only son, Frankie, seen only in videos recorded on Christy's camera that she uses as a journal. The story of the family's confrontation with their loss and their commitment to their life as a family represented by the birth of a third daughter is the core of the film.

It is powerful stuff. The loss of a child is every parent's nightmare, and the journey back from that loss is a difficult and dramatic one. For the most part, Sheridan handles it with delicacy and humor, and there are many moments in the film that are moving and illuminating. Unfortunately there are also moments when he seems to lose any sense of discipline, and instead of allowing the audience to come to their own conclusions about events, he becomes preachy and manipulative.

Perhaps the strongest illustration of this is the scene where he cuts back and forth between the death throes of family friend Mateo (Djimon Hounsou) and the struggle for survival of the new baby. It doesn't work as "memoir" because it represents an event that no one could have witnessed. It doesn't work as "magical realism" because it runs counter to the representational narrative tone established - the sudden break to an 'omniscient observer" point of view is jerky and disruptive.

There is also a level of nostalgic denial in the story that works against its emotional resonance. The family arrives in New York with next to nothing. They have to sell their car to get enough money to rent an apartment, and all they can afford is a run-down walk-up in a neighborhood populated by junkies. Yet the apartment is a spacious loft-like space with large windows, and in a short time the family has transformed it into a place of beauty, complete with extensive stenciling and faux painting, tatty but elegant furniture, and colorful drapes. The actual grittiness and squalor of the locations is transformed into something romantic and "colorful."

Likewise, the turmoil of the parents' relationship and its effect on the girls is glossed over with unsatisfying superficiality. In spite of hints of ongoing discord founded in Johnny's failure to come to terms with his sense of loss and his resulting frustration at being unable to "feel" - expressed in a very effective scene with Mateo - the real depths and costs of this emotional knot are never deeply explored and resolved. The explosive anger that erupts between Johnny and Sarah evaporates as quickly as it arises, with little sense of how the family deals with its long-term effects.

So, notwithstanding the effective story-telling and interesting characterizations that are the film's greatest strengths, one is left with a sense of something missing, of the whole story not having been told, of the truly difficult bits having been idealised and marginalized - contrary to the truth of most people's experience, where those difficult and painful parts tend to be the ones we remember most vividly.

These lapses don't by any means sink the film - but they do cause it to spring a leak or two and require Sheridan to bail like hell to keep it afloat. To keep audience interest in spite of such problems with narrative consistency, continuity and credibility he has to fall back on the convincing power of individual scenes. In this he has excellent assistance from a strong cast. Samantha Morton shows yet another side of her amazing talent as the fiercely-determined, instinctively-independent yet deeply devoted Sarah. She brings this complex character to life with a conviction that mostly over-rides the inexplicable self-contradictions of her personality. She patches right over holes in the script with a dedication to her story that is ultimately convincing, if inexplicably so.

Real-life sisters Sarah and Emma Bolger, who play Christy and her younger sister Ariel, have a freshness and spontaneity only found in the best performances by child actors - and it is a credit to Sheridan's competence as a director, as well as his young performers' skills that he draws such naturalness out of them. While the script doesn't require them to deal with some of the complexities of the situation, what they are called upon to do, they do with courage, confidence and obvious enthusiasm.

Djimon Hounsou, the west African model and actor who made his first powerful impression as Cinque in Steven Speilberg's Amistad does some fine work here as the family's artist-neighbor Mateo, struggling with isolation and despair in the face of his illness and impending death. Although the character is a little awkwardly written and might have become a caricature in lesser hands, Hounsou manages to find both dignity and vulnerability in him, and in spite of his character being something of a contrivance, manages to embody him as a credible human presence.

Paddy Considine - who plays the idealised character of Sheridan himself - is the most problematic member of the ensemble. Because the script has as much trouble coming to grips with the character's failings as the character does with his feelings, it is difficult to get a sense of who Johnny is, and Considine is never quite able to provide the key insights we need to get a grip on him. In individual scenes, he acquits himself with notable skill, but overall, the parts he shows us never coalesce into a compelling portrait.

We know he is in pain, but Johnny's refusal (and the film's) to delve deeply into the source of that pain keeps us removed from his experience of it, and so, equally removed from his integration of it, which ought to be the emotional catharsis. Certainly weaknesses in the script are partly to blame, but Considine's performance at some key moments lacks the intensity and strong sense of identity that allow Morton and Hounsou to bring their characters to life regardless of similar obstacles.

The production is well designed and executed. Except for a few anomalies, like the relative cleanliness of the tenement building and surrounding neighborhood, the excellent "shabby-chic" taste with which the apartment is decorated, and a few intentionally self-conscious "beauty shots" of the New York city skyline, the locations and sets strongly reinforce the sense of place. Period music and an unobtrusive original score - including a couple of sequences set to songs (Sheridan got his start directing concert videos for U-2) - are used effectively to create mood transitions and for a sort of stylized "exposition" that works well.

Declan Quinn's camera work enhances the story-telling effectively. There is a lot of hand-held and steadicam work that evokes Christy's point of view, from her video camera, as well as the rough-and-tumble street-level life the family is living. There is a lot of camera movement, reflecting the restlessness and distraction created by the unresolved issues in the family. as noted, there are several sequences where the camera work is set to music where Quinn's use of framing, Sheridan's direction and some effective editing by Naomi Garaghty create transitions of tempo and mood that keep the film moving along smoothly.

Sheridan has shown himself to be a capable and talented film-maker. He has the international awards and Oscar nominations to prove it. This effort does not rise to the level of his best work, but it is still well worth seeing. While we don't get to know the family as well as we ought to - and need to, to truly understand their dynamics and hence participate fully in their transformation - yet the glimpses we do get are mostly rewarding and intriguing, full of sensitivity and sympathy.

But that's just my opinion. What's yours? Let me know.z