The International Writers Magazine: Film Review
America - DVD Review
America was a highly regarded film that was released in 2003.
I found a DVD copy in the rental stores 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,
Yes, most films,
books, CDs, etc. are utter crap so I realize the standard retort would
be youve 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 its sort of a modern Angelas Ashes
told from a female childs 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- Sarahs 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
dont 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 its made all the
harder considering this is supposed to be Hells Kitchen, in Manhattan,
sometime in the last few decades. Part of this disconnect with the real
may be due to the fact that the tales 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 clans 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 sons 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 familys
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.
character is simply not strong enough to inspire, nor weak enough to
pity- shes lukewarm in all aspects- making it a puzzle why she
is so admired by the large African, while Hounsous 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 childrens 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 couples 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 films use of Christys 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, its one of those films that slightly
annoys because, in the hands of a better director, it could have been
something as haunting as the couples dead child is meant to be.
© Dan Schneider -May 2005
all rights reserved