The tumbledown apartment matches the tumbledown lives of Johnny (Paddy Considine), his wife Sarah (Samantha Morton) and their two children Christy and Ariel (played by real-life sisters Sarah and Emma Bolger). They're penniless contemporary Irish immigrants, haunted by the recent death of a son and, before the movie is over, scared witless by Sarah's life-threatening pregnancy. Oh, and we forgot to mention, Johnny's an actor who's afraid to let his authentic emotions boil over onstage. Which means, for him, the choice is between driving a cab and destitution.
Jim Sheridan's In America, which he wrote with his daughters Naomi and Kirsten, is obviously in part an autobiographical film. The director of My Left Foot, among other excellent movies, was a fairly recent (1981) immigrant to the U.S., had a brother whose early death shaped his sensibility and of course struggled to establish himself in a new land.
Still, In America is far from a despairing film. Which is not the same as saying it's an overtly feel-good movie. Johnny has an angry, explosive side. And his wife has a sad watchfulness about her that, in Morton's performance, embraces something more than the hard facts of her life. It is their girls who enchantingly center the film. What looks like squalor to us looks like a wonderland to them, a place to be explored and embraced. They're eager and innocent and unfrightened especially when they reach out to "the Screaming Man" who lives downstairs. His real name is Mateo, he is played by Djimon Hounsou (Amistad), and he's a reclusive, angry artist who is dying of AIDS. The kids bring him back to his essential sweetness and to an unsentimental acceptance of death.
That, indeed, is the way this movie goes; it does not blink at the harshness of poverty, but it never gives in to the despair that hovers constantly around this family. Considine is particularly good at treading the edge between these two modes. He may occasionally surrender to brooding, but when his family is dying of the summer's heat, he finds a huge, heavy, ancient air conditioner and drags it through the streets and up the stairs to cool his loved ones.
But, finally, it is Christy and Ariel who capture our hearts especially Emma Bolger, 7, as the younger child. She is no other word for it magical in the role, one of those kids who confront the world fearlessly, straightforwardly and with a cheerfulness that never veers toward the emptily uplifting. In her way she encapsulates In America's virtues. It's a realistic movie, but one that's always aware that transformative hope may be just around the corner.