Having fled Ireland, Johnny and Sarah (Paddy Considine and Samantha Morton) slip into America across the Canadian border, along with their daughters Christy, 10 (Sarah Bolger), and Ariel, 6 (Emma Bolger, Sarah's real-life sister). It is a blisteringly 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 walk-up, 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 voice-overs, 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 the sake of her daughters, but Johnny too often seems 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 onto it. Johnny is strangely hostile toward Mateo, perhaps resenting how comfortable his wife and children seem 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 whom everybody sees but nobody acknowledges. Until family members can come to terms with their loss, however, they will never be able to move ahead 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 or begs for tears, yet audiences are likely to 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 forward, 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, although they seem to be equally at home with the other actors.
The story moves at a brisk pace, yet never feels rushed. Scenes are allowed to play out in long takes. Cinematographer Declan Quinn's effortless camera work misses nothing, yet seems to be capturing 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 some viewers off, 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.