In America

(2003) *** 1/2 Pg-13
103 min. Fox Searchlight. Director: Jim Sheridan. Cast: Samantha Morton, Paddy Considine, Djimon Hounsou, Sarah Bolger, Emma Bolger.

By all rights, Jim Sheridan's In America--the fictionalized version of Sheridan's own immigration with his family in the 1980s--should be branded with a scarlet "S" for sappy, but somehow the man gets away with storytelling murder. By walking up to the line and ever stepping back, Sheridan makes a virtue of heartfelt sentiment in this fable of familial nightmares and American dreams. When the tune "Do You Believe in Magic" comes on the radio (as the family bursts into Times Square), the musical question hardly seems rhetorical. If you believe, In America is for you.

It's not all magic, of course. Moments later, mother Sarah (Samantha Morton) is declaring the family's American home in a drug-infested walk-up "a bit of a hole," which qualifies as an understatement. Father Jimmy (Paddy Considine) feels the spectre of their dead child at every moment; his desensitized recklessness answers tragedy and threatens to ignite more. Morton and Considine both do exceptional work, brooding over threats to emotional and physical health while bravely trying to put on good faces for their kids.

Christy and Ariel (real-life sisters Sarah and Emma Bolger) are the surviving children, with the younger Ariel a guileless angel surrogate and the older, warier Christy secretly harboring what she believes to be three wishes ("There are some things you should wish for, and some you shouldn't," she cautions in voice-over); this magic-realist conceit sets the tone while also paying unexpected dividends of tension. Sheridan, whose real-life daughters collaborated on the screen story, also gambles and scores by having the daughters shoot digital video of their experiences as a window into their unique points of view on the story: both the camera and the girlish narrator "comment" on the action.

When the family goes to see E.T., Sheridan acknowledges his family-film sentiment while also playing on the family's "illegal alien" status and laying the groundwork for a heavenly metaphor. Also meant to be alien, at least at first, is Djimon Hounsou's character, an artist named Mateo who the girls dub "the screaming man" and dare each other to rouse. The prickly Mateo warms to the children, and though the film threatens to go off the rails in exploring this unlikely friendship, it never does. Wariness turns to friendship, and why not? The family has something to offer this lonely soul, and he has something to offer them.

It's true that we've seen many of these elements before, but Sheridan is a sure-footed storyteller. If In America is not terribly subtle, it is at least smart enough to undercut itself at every opportunity with disarming humor (like a scene in which Christy sings "Desperado" in a school pageant). Sheridan pits Catholic guilt against insistent faith, shadowy adult depression against child-like questioning and wonder; the emphasis remains always on human foibles mastered by the distracting need of family. Sheridan repays the price of admission with screw-twisting scenes involving a much-needed air conditioner and a gambling-based fair attraction that's the dark underbelly of American opportunity. It's a movie for the masses and, excepting the youngest of children, all ages.

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