In America (review)

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Memory Box

(Best of 2003)

Some people claim to have strong, precise memories from their very earliest childhood. Me, it’s all a jumble. Am I really remembering an event, or am I remembering stories of it from long after? Or am I remembering photos of it? Often, that’s the most likely explanation, to my mind. My memories all seem to have that gauzy quality, like the square Instamatic photos my dad took, now faded and a little fuzzy, the tiny dates of processing printed along the border — APR 70, DEC 71 — stinging with impossible distance. And everyone in them is invariably laughing, the sun in their eyes, caught in a brief moment of exquisite joy.

The entirety of In America feels like that, the best parts of childhood worth remembering highlighted amongst misfortune and privation, filtered through tough and tender personalities that favor optimism and making the best of bad situations. There’s plenty of misery and unhappiness and not-nice stuff going on, but seen through the eyes of two young sisters and the special ability that (some) kids have to see only the fun stuff, it all becomes enchanted, a little sweeter than straight-up reality.

Director Jim Sheridan — who’s given us such typically pragmatic Irish stories as My Left Foot and The Field — loosely based In America on his own experience immigrating to New York in the early 80s with his wife and two daughters, Naomi and Kirsten, who, now filmmakers in their own right, wrote the screenplay with him. (A tragedy from Sheridan’s own childhood comes into the mix, too.) Here, it’s actor Johnny (Paddy Considine: 24 Hour Party People, Last Resort), looking to make it big in New York, who hauls wife Sarah (Samantha Morton: Minority Report, Jesus’ Son) and daughters Christy and Ariel (real-life sisters Sarah and Emma Bolger) to a horrid tenement building in a rough Manhattan neighborhood. They’ve got no money but a surplus of love to get them through an emotional journey that runs the gamut from grief to bliss and the bittersweet intersection where the two meet.

It’s the two little girls — Christy is about 11, Ariel around 6 — that distill the magic from the mundane for us. Their apartment building is rundown and overrun with addicts, but in their eyes — and so in ours — it becomes a wonderfully gothic, delightfully haunted place; Ariel wonders if they can keep the pigeons flapping inside the open skylight of their top-floor apartment. Their mysterious neighbor Mateo (a powerfully enigmatic Djimon Hounsou: Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life, Gladiator) — “the man who screams,” and he does, his agonized bellows echoing more like a tantalizing half-remembered thing than something actual and real — doesn’t scare them, and their persistence opens up a whole new friendship with him.

Keepsake childhood secrets and family tales that grow longer with every retelling: that’s the warmth that envelops even the moments that are stormy or scary or only dimly understood by the girls as important. The adventure of the air-conditioner; the time Dad almost lost the rent money in a carnival game (perhaps the most heart-stopping and suspenseful moment of the film); the lightning-lit night when the girls were sent out to stay with a friend so that Mom could “play with Dad by herself” and the new baby was made.

It’s like a treasure box of memories, is In America — someone else’s memories, sure, but ones that cut to the heart nevertheless, because they’re poignant and cherished and have been nourished into a kind of eternal, universal life.

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