There's a moment during Jim Sheridan's "In America" when a reclusive artist named Mateo (Djimon Hounsou) is approached by his neighbors' children while the pair attempts to trick or treat in their dilapidated tenement. Despite his initial resistance, the Nigerian invites the girls (played by sisters Sarah and Emma Bolger) into his studio. After just a minute of conversation, he's overcome by the pure honesty of the words they speak.
The muscular man can't help but shed a tear.
That's comparable to the reaction by most viewers of this drama, who will likely be overwhelmed by the emotional sincerity of this simple -- but by no means simplistic -- story.
Time and again director Sheridan ("My Left Foot"), who cowrote the screenplay with his daughters Naomi and Kirsten, fashions a tale that borders on melodrama. But even with plotlines involving poverty, blood transfusions and terminal illness, the characters always prove they're worth investing in.
The result is one of the most poignant films of 2003.
"We heard Manhattan before we ever saw it," narrates Christy (Sarah Bolger) as the Irish family drives through the Holland Tunnel into the heart of New York City. There's the sense that her father, a talented but unemployed actor named Johnny (Paddy Considine), and mother Sarah (Samantha Morton) aren't immigrating just for the new opportunities but also to escape bad memories of home. Their two-year-old son, Frankie, died recently from a brain tumor, and the boy's shadow still follows the clan.
Although for Christy (who looks like a young Liv Tyler), the departed soul watches over the household like a patron saint. In fact, she believes Frankie will grant three wishes for them. By the end of the saga she will have requested all three, but as she explains in the opening voiceover, "There are some things you should wish for and some you shouldn't."
Sharing a housing complex with a variety of other immigrants, junkies and transvestites, the newcomers cope with having make-do jobs and little disposable income. Then they meet Mateo, who is known in the vicinity as "the screaming man" for his frequent outbursts of anguish. The family's friendship with this loner signifies a progressive turning point, both in terms of adjusting to their new surroundings and putting to rest the ghosts of their past.
Sheridan's semi-autobiographical ode might be dismissed as quaint if it didn't so measurably generate the kind of emotional integrity that only stems from life experience. It's obvious that there are huge portions of the picture taken directly from the filmmaker's personal history (just look at the screenwriting credits). It's even forgivable that Sheridan is as in love with his own idealized version of New York as Woody Allen -- albeit his is a more feverishly urban and less antiquated one.
This is a movie in which simple scenes carry as much weight as the dramatic high points. These are as humble as a resourceful father's ongoing attempts at trying to install a window unit air conditioner in the sweltering summertime, or in oldest daughter Christy singing The Eagles' "Desperado" at a school recital -- a moment that doesn't necessarily factor into the plot, yet can only be described as devastating. (Undeniably, the Bolger sisters deliver two of the most naturalistic child actor performances in years.)
It's a real testament when a film can craft a segment involving a father trying to win an E.T. doll for his kid at a carnival booth and imbue it with more tension than any chase scenes in a big-budget action thriller.
Although Sheridan is working with modest, intimate material, the outcome of "In America" couldn't be more majestic.