I’ve found that films are based on a belief system. Either you want to hear the story or you don’t. It’s like when Jesus says, “This is my body, this is my blood,” that’s either a lie or the truth, depending on your point of view.
—Jim Sheridan, commentary, In America
Don’t draw the queen of diamonds, boy.
She’ll beat you if she’s able.
You know the queen of hearts is your best friend.
—The Eagles, “Desperado”
“This is the voice of Jim Sheridan, the egomaniac who wrote, directed, and produced a film about himself.” It’s hard to resist a self-description so upfront, aware and effacing at the same time. As In America begins, his DVD commentary goes on to describe the nearly unreadable blur that fills the screen: “These images I shot myself on camcorder soon after September 11,” he says. “I saw this flag fluttering in the breeze with the sun behind it. I don’t know what I was feeling actually, but what I like about it is the lack of information. You don’t know what it is for a while. People think it’s like an amoeba or something, the beginning of life, but it’s actually just that flag there.”
His movie, as he insinuates here, is aptly titled. The semi-autobiographical tale of director Jim Sheridan (who cowrote the script with daughters Naomi and Kirsten) considers the many complicated ways that “America” works as idea and experience, the ways it engulfs, consumes, and produces its subjects. “In America,” you are of and about and swallowed by America, simultaneously moved, enchanted, and repelled by its many seductions, moving inside and around its confines.
The “America” Sheridan represents here is both immense and limited, fantastic and nightmarish, incredible new home for Irish immigrants Johnny and Sarah (Paddy Considine and Samantha Morton, “a fantastic actress,” says Sheridan, “I could keep the camera on Sam Morton all day”), as well as their young daughters, 10-year-old Christy and seven-year-old Ariel (played by sisters Sarah and Emma Bolger). Still pained by the death of their much-missed son and brother Frankie, the family loads into a station wagon to cross over via Canada, equipped with a would-be breezy fib for the guard: “We’re on holidays,” says Johnny, sneaking into the land of opportunity.
The movie begins as they cross the border from Canada to the U.S., a scene that Sheridan recalls as his own experience. “It was always difficult coming through the border.” More broadly, he suggests, when the story surfaces concerning the dead child (which is based on his own dead baby brother, lost when Sheridan was 17), “This is based on the myth of the Irish coming to America after death, on a mythological level, which everybody knows the Irish did, after the Famine. Unfortunately, the Brits have a bit of a problem with that, because they’re in denial, so they think this scene is a little unrealistic.” In a word, Sheridan is a kick, throughout his commentary.
The family’s arrival in New York City is shot in part through Christy’s camcorder, used throughout the film by DP Declan Quinn to convey the young narrator’s dazzled and observant point of view. As Sheridan notes, “People love it in America, because it’s a child’s view of New York… I was amazed at the reaction to it, and it shows what you can achieve with a certain naïveté and innocence.” Times Square appears as a dreamy serial smashup of images, the girls’ eyes wide at spectacular colored lights, Sarah gazing in wonder at the streets throbbing with life and intrigue, accompanied by the soundtrack selection, “Do You Believe in Magic?” Yes yes, you want to.
While the infectiously optimistic Johnny seeks work as an actor (running lines late with the girls), Sarah finds employment at a local ice cream parlor called Heaven (Sheridan insists this is a “reality” from his own life, and doesn’t “mean” anything). One summer evening they seek refuge from the sweaty heat at a fair, where Johnny risks their rent money on a ball-toss to win an E.T. doll for Ariel. A crowd gathers, the barker imposes his own doom-and-gloom narration, the money stakes rise, and Johnny is on the edge of not making the last necessary target. All the while, big-eyed Christy prays to Frankie, using up one of the precious three wishes she believes he’s left her, to help her dad save face and her mom believe in him, one more time.
The film’s not-so-subtle subtext involves the recovery of faith. Following devastation and the disappointments of their new life, Johnny feels repeatedly beaten down, but the girls’ point of view reframes their hardships as “adventures.” Though Sarah’s huge eyes mirror anguish and on some days, she can barely find the strength to rouse herself from bed, the girls persist in wondering at the world around them, demonstrating repeatedly their endless capacity for love and openness. Christy’s performance of “Desperado” for a school play hovers over the soundtrack, a lingering, lilting expression of simultaneous ache and desire. (Seeing the performance again on DVD, it’s even more heart-melting than the first time: the girl is stunning.)
As Sheridan suggests in his commentary (which is easily the DVD’s most winning extra, though it also includes 10 deleted scenes, an alternate ending, and a mostly uninformative five-minute “Making of In America”), the film explores all kinds of “American” tropes and hopes, including, as Sheridan observes, the ways that individuals cope with despair and lack. This family, he says, “You don’t worry too much about them… that’s what’s going on with them, it’s poverty, but they’re in denial. They don’t care actually, they’re on an adventure.” As Johnny returns to a corner store, trying to deal a clerk into getting coins for used bottles, Sheridan notes, “This mundane stuff… establishes for me kind of like character reality, very interesting stuff about America, stuff about materialism, about the fundamentals of money.”
Thematic threads come together when the family goes to see E.T. one hot evening. The character represents a “desperado”‘s yearning for home, alongside the family’s quest for reconciliation with the past and promise of a future. Lucky for everyone, they find all in their Hell’s Kitchen apartment building. Surrounded by friendly addicts and transvestites, and comforted by a solicitous landlord Papo (Juan Hernandez). In their broken down apartment building, the elevator’s been out for years, the rooms are populated by pigeons (which the girls are eager to keep as pets), and their downstairs neighbor first appears holed up in the dank shadows of his room, deemed by Christy “the man who screams.”
This is Mateo (Djimon Hounsou), an African artist introduced to the girls by his yelling late into the night. He paints when he’s not slashing his canvases in agony and rage, a subject barely captured by Quinn’s roving camera. Ravaged by a virus (which is AIDS, deprived of its “power,” says Sheridan, if it remains unnamed), he appears only within his walls, until he meets the girls one Halloween night. They come banging their tiny fists on his door (painted with the words “Keep away”); the girls yell, again and again, “Trick or treat! Trick or treat!” At last Mateo opens his door, looming over them with his bright wool scarf hanging long and limp, and the girls are instantly charmed. Invited inside his apartment, Ariel spots an unfinished painting of their building: “It looks like a haunted house,” she says. “It is haunted,” he says, his voice low. “But it’s not scary. It’s a magic house.”
Indeed, everything in the film turns magical once Mateo appears. Not to put too fine a point on it, he veers closely to the very American image of the Magical Negro, selfless impetus to someone else’s spiritual uplift. While Mateo rants one night (before he meets the girls), Johnny and Sarah make passionate, desperate love for the first time in months, conceiving a child that endangers her health and recalls their still raw past, but also presents new life, new expectations, new memories.
As Sheridan notes, “Halloween’s a very strange kind of pagan, pre-Christian, spiritual time, and I was trying to suggest the need for almost a pre-Christian structure when you’ve lost faith in God, which for me occurred around 17, 18. Maybe as I lost faith, I got something back, a protective spirit which was my brother’s.” This spirit, he intimates, has affected him since his brother’s death, and drives him to create, to shape life as art.
It also explains his film’s structure. If the crosscutting of the Irish couple’s sex and Mateo’s endless anger is heavy-handed, the desire to connect life and death, to make some sad sense of the imbalance, is surely understandable (again, Sheridan observes his effort to show how sex became related to death, a new reality since AIDS became part of a daily consciousness). “I think films in some sense, are about necessary lies,” offers Sheridan. “This is about the fact that the Irish can overcome death, or leave it behind… And I thought about the hunger strikers and we being the only Western society to have that, 10 men, dying one after the other. And I thought, you know, we’ve got to leave this suicide culture behind. We’re probably the only suicide culture where the guys did damage only to themselves, but we are close to the Arabs in their sense of victimization. So, necessary lies are very important to me, because they’re what civilization is about.”
Though initially burdened by their personal loss and motivated (to be creative) by their poverty, Johnny, Sarah, and the girls find solace in their friendship with Mateo. He inspires and loves them, unconditionally. When Johnny at first mistakes Mateo’s generosity for covetousness (“Are you in love with my wife?”), his neighbor’s response is as grand a gesture as you can imagine: “I’m in love with you,” Mateo says. “And I’m in love with your beautiful woman, and I’m in love with your kids. And I’m even in love with your unborn child.”
Facing death, Mateo is in love with the very idea of life. Represented through the girls’ eyes, he is at once grand and imposing, brilliant and weakening. He is the film’s central emblem—the sign of “America”‘s wealth and diversity, but also of its tragedy and damage. As lovely and inspired as so much of the film remains—the delicate camcorder images, the girls’ perfect performances—In America is troubled and limited by against the specter of race in America. When Ariel worries about Mateo’s failing body, he comforts her by saying he’s an “alien,” like in E.T., on his way “home.” Less sanguinely, he’s also an alien in America, where he must represent too much.