Having fled Ireland, Johnny and Sarah (Paddy Considine and Samantha Morton) slip into America across the Canadian border along with their daughters, ten-year-old Christy (Sarah Bolger) and six-year-old Ariel (Sarah's real-life sister, Emma Bolger). It is a blistering hot summer. With little money and even fewer options, they find an apartment in Hell's Kitchen, one of New York's toughest neighborhoods. Their new home is known as "the junkies' building" because of the drug addicts who swarm in and around it. To get to their fourth-floor walkup, the family must pass by the door of the "man who screams," a mysterious neighbor whom they often hear but never see.
The film is narrated by Christy, a keenly observant child who records the family's activities with her prized camcorder. In one of her first voiceovers, she mentions her brother, Frankie, who died at the age of four. The family left Ireland in the hopes of putting the tragedy behind them, but it is clear that no one, especially Johnny, has really been able to move forward. Sarah tries, for her daughters' sake, but Johnny too often appears to be just going through the motions. Christy, ever sensitive to her parents' moods, seems to carry the weight of the world on her shoulders, while Ariel, with her unbridled curiosity and enthusiasm, embraces life completely.
An aspiring actor, Johnny drives a cab and makes the rounds of auditions. Sarah takes a job as a waitress. They barely make ends meet. Christy and Ariel befriend the screaming man downstairs, Mateo (Djimon Hounsou), who rages against life while desperately trying to hold on to it. Johnny is strangely hostile toward Mateo, perhaps resentful of how comfortable his wife and children are with this stranger.
The family's life is a series of large obstacles and small but potent victories, money worries and lucky breaks, quiet despair and unexpected adventure. Frankie remains an unseen but constant presence, the elephant in the living room that everybody sees but nobody acknowledges. Until family members can come to terms with their loss, however, they will never be able to get on with their lives.
In America touches one's emotions in countless ways. Warm, funny and painful, it is beautifully written, acted, shot and directed. Sheridan wrote the script with his daughters, Naomi and Kirsten Sheridan, who were children themselves when the family moved from Ireland to a tenement in Hell's Kitchen (the name the director has taken for his production company). The script never strains for laughs nor begs for tears, yet it's likely that audiences will find themselves experiencing both.
Considine, a British actor not yet well known on this side of the Atlantic, perfectly balances Johnny's grief and numbing loss of faith with his relentless efforts to move on, in body if not in soul. The always exceptional Morton is maternal love personified. Hounsou brings tremendous dignity to the role of Mateo, as well as a deep spirituality that borders on mysticism. Even the grim Hell's Kitchen setting takes on the air of a fairy tale, thanks to the cobalt-blue walls and bright-orange light that transform the squalid apartment into a magical haven.
The camera adores the two Bolger children. Emma, who makes her acting debut as Ariel, is absolutely irresistible, while Sarah brings an impressive, totally convincing sense of gravity to her role as a child who feels responsible for keeping her entire family afloat. The fact that the girls are real-life sisters undoubtedly helped make them more comfortable on screen, although they seem to be just as at home with the other actors as they do with each other.
The story moves at a brisk pace but never feels rushed. Scenes are allowed to play out in long takes. Cinematographer Declan Quinn's effortless camerawork misses nothing, yet seems to capture everything spontaneously. Images shot through Christy's camcorder are cleverly integrated into the whole, adding humor while contributing to the film's already textured look.
To call a film "heartwarming" risks turning off some viewers, but In America pulls at the heartstrings in a totally genuine, non-manipulative way. It is that rare find: a film that is as emotionally truthful as it is satisfying.