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The International Writers Magazine
: Film Review

In America - DVD Review
Dan Schneider

In America was a highly regarded film that was released in 2003. I found a DVD copy in the rental store’s bargain bin and bought it on that reputation. While not a bad film I again must wonder why is it that critics tend to rave about merely, at best, competent films?

Yes, most films, books, CDs, etc. are utter crap so I realize the standard retort would be ‘you’ve answered your own query’- yet....still when such an obviously flawed film is boostered and receives Oscar buzz I shake my head. The film was directed by Jim Sheridan, whose best-known prior film was My Left Foot, and is a mish-mash of a film that tries to be many things but fails to be what all films should strive for most- a great film.

  In many ways it’s sort of a modern Angela’s Ashes told from a female child’s perspective. That child is ten year old Christy (Sarah Bolger), whose parents Johnny (Paddy Considine) and Sarah (Samantha Morton) are haunted by the possibly preventable death of their son, Franky, which occurs before the film proper. Christy also has a six year old sister Ariel (Emma Bolger- Sarah’s real life sibling). The family immigrates to Manhattan and lives in a tenement that is a dive- no, worse; a crackhouse where, incongruously, the parents don’t worry a bit for their daughters’ safety, allowing them to run riot screaming through the tenement, be taken care of by neighbors they barely know, and trick-or-treat without any supervision. While one can accept such a fairy tale world in film it’s made all the harder considering this is supposed to be Hell’s Kitchen, in Manhattan, sometime in the last few decades. Part of this disconnect with the real may be due to the fact that the tale’s specific date is never told, much less its era- it could be the 70s, 80s, or 90s. Sheridan- on the DVD commentary- says he strove for this chronologic ambiguity, yet there is no real dramatic, nor aesthetic reason for it, save for confusion- if that can be considered an aesthetic.

  Of course, the family- the only whites in the neighborhood- are befriended by Mateo, a huge African artist who is dying of AIDS. He is played by Djimon Hounsou, who is swiftly taking up the slack of ‘the wise Negro’ roles in films that used to be the sole province of Morgan Freeman, and Sidney Poitier before him. Not much really occurs in the film, though, save the utterly expected- Mateo dies, but not before surprisingly paying off the poor Irish clan’s hospital debt for their latest pregnancy- where this dirt poor, dying tenement dweller got the money is never explained. And, of course, the parents learn to deal with their son’s death, with the film ending on an up note.

  The problem is there simply is not much here. Sheridan offers no real philosophic fat to chew on, nor do we, even for a moment, doubt that the family will succeed. Considine easily gives the best adult performance as a vagabond actor- the reason for the family’s move- who is not the stereotypical hard drinkin’ Irish daddy, but it was Morton and Hounsou who got Oscar nods for what are probably their least affecting, and most off-the-rack screen roles to date.

Morton’s mother character is simply not strong enough to inspire, nor weak enough to pity- she’s lukewarm in all aspects- making it a puzzle why she is so admired by the large African, while Hounsou’s Mateo is more of a living good luck charm than a real flesh and blood character. The two young girls, though, dominate the film, with unaffected performances- neither terminal wiseasses nor saints. The performance by Sarah Bolger, especially, is a gem amongst all-time children’s performances. Her singing of The Eagles’ Desperado is by far the most affecting moment in the film, which tries to foment attachment for the characters in many ways save for making them have any depth. The two performances of the sisters elevate a rather pedestrian and anomic screenplay (which, inexplicably, was nominated for an Oscar, as well)- the evidence of which is manifested most blatantly when Mateo dies at the same time the couple’s new child is born. Ugh!

  The basic problem is the film simply does not know whether it wants to be a realistic slice of New York poverty/tragedy, an uplifting Frank Capran fantasy, or a mystical allegory, so it ends up a middling piece of mush that leaves the viewer wanting more. As for the DVD features- the film and sound were fine, the DVD commentary rather pedestrian though. Sheridan tends to ramble between comments on the film, the ‘real’ biographical elements that went into the tale, and times when he seems to be speaking just to fill the track. There are deleted scenes, but nothing of any consequence, and an alternate ending that merely consists of a slight twist on the film’s use of Christy’s camcorder as an all-seeing eye to tell a highly condensed version of the story. Would that Sheridan had concentrated more on what he wanted to tell, rather than how he wanted to tell it, and the film would have succeeded far more than it does. As is, it’s one of those films that slightly annoys because, in the hands of a better director, it could have been something as haunting as the couple’s dead child is meant to be.
© Dan Schneider -May 2005

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