The history of cinema is occasionally marked by touching collaboration between fathers and sons – for instance, Sergei Bordrov, junior and senior, in Russia, or Elia and Nick Kazan in America. But father-daughter collaborations are much rarer. I can think of only one recent example, John Boorman's Where the Heart Is (1990), a surreal fantasy written with his daughter, Telsche.
Jim Sheridan's In America could also have been titled Where the Heart Is. He has called on for creative help not one but two daughters, Naomi and Kirsten (the latter a director in her own right). Not surprisingly, it is a project with strong autobiographical resonances – and all the richer for being a group or family autobiography, rather than the expression of single memory and sensibility.
We follow the fortunes of Johnny (Paddy Considine) and Sarah (Samantha Morton), and their kids Christy (Sarah Bolger) and Ariel (Emma Bolger), Irish immigrants to present-day New York. Johnny is having a hard time finding acting work (there are some good jokes about the perennial accent problem for non-American performers), and their skimpy resources are already very stretched. And the family unit, for all its high spirits, is haunted by a devastating loss that no one has really come to terms with.
At the start, In America looks set to become a typical thriller about urban paranoia. The family's apartment is right in the middle of an explosive, multi-racial ghetto, and one of the neighbours, the artist Mateo (Djimon Hounsou), is particularly scary when he starts howling at night. Hints of sexual menace are everywhere.
But there is an equally strong hint of a fairy tale in the air, thanks to Christy's optimistic narration, and it is this ambience which eventually takes a stronger hold over the movie. There have been several remarkable films over the past few years about the difficult process of family grieving, such as All About My Mother (1999) and The Son's Room (2001). Sheridan's film is not quite in that class, but at its best and most heartrending moments it comes pretty close.
The most remarkable and winning element of this movie is the acting. All the performers are superb, but two are outstanding, and at completely different ends of the acting spectrum. Morton is in the tradition of Tilda Swinton: blessed with an uncommon and unconventional beauty, she can sometimes resemble a visitor from Mars, as she did in Morvern Callar (2003). There are no soft edges to the character of Sarah. She is tough, struggling, full of energy and desire. A love scene between her and Johnny is one of the finest odes to marital passion that the cinema has ever given us.
Then there is little Emma Bolger as Ariel. At the age of seven, she gives a performance reminiscent of Victoire Thivisol (who was a bit younger) in Jacques Doillon's Ponette (1996) – another great film about grieving. Her busy spontaneity and her kaleidoscope of moods are spellbinding.
Beside her, real-life sister Sarah is almost muscled out of the drama – until the moment comes for the character of Christy to firmly take the reins and gently guide her father to an emotional catharsis, in a scene that will leave few eyes dry in any theatre.
In America is not a perfect film. As a director, Sheridan is a little too keen of blasting in an obviously chosen pop song to suddenly shift the mood from dark to light or vice versa. And one can feel just a little manipulated – which is hardly necessary, given the tear-jerking wallop being prepared elsewhere in the film – as the sub-story involving Mateo is unveiled.
But these are minor quibbles, for In America is unquestionably Sheridan's best work to date. And for once, we can see a movie extolling family values that is neither conservative nor sanctimonious, but deeply felt and touchingly observed.
© Adrian Martin January 2004