February 5, 2004

In America

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First we see yet another family sneaking into America via Canada. I’m tempted to be outraged at the stereotype: an immigrant family is desperate to get into the US, so it sneaks through friendly Canada, a country so lax about their security they’ll let anyone in! But then I decide to relax and see what it is driving this family, what their motivation is for traveling to the “promised land.” And I am rewarded for my decision. In America is a poignant movie that portrays the lives of a young, hurting family in search of their future and their lost happiness.

That happiness used to take the form of Frankie, the youngest member of the Irish family the film follows through a short, tumultuous time in their lives. Back in Ireland, Frankie passed away when he was only five, leaving wounds in the hearts of each of the remaining family members. We can almost see his ghost haunting the family, though it is only at the very end of the film that we even see what this child looked like, and that is indeed a very fuzzy glimpse. Each member of the Irish clan grieves Frankie’s death in their own way: the father, Johnny (Paddy Considine), an aspiring actor, doesn’t have any emotion left to put into his acting, or even for his family; he hasn’t cried since Frankie died. The mother, Sarah (Samantha Morton), is trying to say good bye to her son without feeling as though she has forgotten him, and is also desperately trying to deal with the guilt she feels for outliving her son. Ten-year-old Christy (Sarah Bolger), who also superbly narrates the film, keeps her sadness between herself and her camcorder. And young Ariel (Emma Bolger), who is trying to figure out what happened to the family she thought she had.

Sharing their collective grief, and carrying the burden of his own despair, is their neighbour, Mateo (Djimon Hounsou), known at first to the family as the man who screams. Thanks to the angelic little girls (seriously, Ariel was dressed as an angel at the time), Mateo ends his screaming tirades and begins sharing in the lives of the distressed family. A mystery in his own right, we never really learn what the past held for him, or what has led him to the life he leads: just one more story in a city that’s already too full of such tales. He is a calm voice of security when everything else keeps changing. Mateo reminds the family that you have to believe that things will get better, that everything will be okay.

There is a certain spirituality that seems to permeate the film, both in conventional religious forms and broader issues of faith. Johnny lost faith in God after Frankie died and hasn’t been able to believe in anything since. Sarah is still very much a devout Catholic and insists that both Christy and Ariel attend Catholic school, no matter what the cost. When he first meets the little lasses, Mateo looks around the hallway after them, as though someone were missing, someone else who should be there, the ghost of Frankie. And when he isn’t there, we feel that loss keenly. There is a void that Frankie has left behind him.

This void has followed them all the way from Ireland to New York, a city that serves as a beautiful backdrop and an inspirational dream in this movie. New York is almost worshipped, as every scene unfolds a new way to love the city and the people who inhabit it. For instance, the apartment building into which the family moves was originally a pigeon-infested dump with a bathtub in the middle of the living room. The family transforms their less than perfect surroundings into a home of love and hope. Then there’s the perpetual junkie in the building, a harmless fellow who swears every day that he’s getting clean. Or the beggar in the street who even offers Johnny food stamps in return for the few dollars Johnny has given him out of kindness and pity. Everywhere the city is portrayed as intense, alive, bursting with hope and new life.

This is the sort of movie that when you sniffle and try to hide your tears, it only alerts you to the sniffles all around you. True emotion in a film is rare, almost as rare as in everyday life. In this film, everyone’s holding back something, an anguish that coils around the midsection and suffocates. Honesty aids in the uncoiling of emotion that sets you free. No longer under the tyranny of that which can’t be said, the family can finally look out at the moon and wave good bye to their painful past while embracing each other.

Archived article by Sue Karp