Before it tumbles gently into melodrama, before it begins to struggle and cloy for its sensation, Jim Sheridan's In America deals more comfortably with its effective yin and yang: on the one hand, the story of a young Irish immigrant family of four trying to survive Manhattan; and on the other, the same family dealing with the death of 5-year-old Frankie, the son and brother whose memory they can't leave behind.
Sheridan, the sometimes-political Irish writer/director of My Left Foot and In the Name of the Father, co-wrote In America with his two daughters as a tribute to their family's own Frankie, to whom the film is dedicated. This makes their effort uncomfortable to critique when it ends. In fact, much of the Sheridans' film is fine and poignant: the touch-and-go trip through American customs as the Sullivans enter the U.S. by car from Canada, the pigeon-infested walkup slum they rent in a dilapidated building, the street life of neon-lit New York, and the brooding, hulking, exotic, tempestuous, mysterious artist, Mateo (Djimon Hounsou), who lives one flight down from the family, and who turns out to be a compassionate (and munificent) humanist -- "I'm in love with everything that lives!" he howls -- dying of what we can only presume to be AIDS.
Johnny (Paddy Considine), the Sullivan patriarch, is a theater actor who's become all technique, his gut feelings blocked by his refusal to accept Frankie's death. Sarah (Samantha Morton) was a teacher back home but can get work only in a nearby ice cream parlor called Heaven. This genial neighborhood hangout becomes a respite for the kids: the sensitive toddler Ariel (Emma Bolger), and the sage 10-year-old Christy (Sarah Bolger), who narrates the story with her words and a video camera.
When Sheridan stays close to these characters and their everyday lives, he reminds us of the risks some people take to embrace the bounties of freedom's land. He achieves this without the jingoism of ersatz flag-waving, and with some elegant metaphor: In America opens in a blur of distorted quavering color that turns out to be an extreme closeup of a sunlit American flag. As well, the early talk of Frankie's death feels very much like the way people avoid the unendurable. He's a furtive presence in their lives, the heavenly source of Christy's three wishes (which she uses sparingly), and her parents' unspoken motivation to make another baby.
But for a good bit of his movie, Sheridan simply overthinks his tragedy and his allegory, building to a clumsy climax where Mateo hands over his death rattle to the Sullivans' premature infant. After that comes a final moment of loveliness, a coda that returns to Sheridan's playful fascination with the joys and sorrows of American popular culture (from E.T. and "Do You Believe in Magic?" to The Grapes of Wrath and "Turn, Turn, Turn"). And so his labor of love is equal parts both, a poem and a paean, a drama and therapy, and a movie worth seeing, with tolerable reservations.