I’m looking for the authentic, but it’s hard to say exactly how you get to that.
— Jim Sheridan, In America: A Portrait of the Film
I’m an alien.
— Mateo (Djimon Hounsou), In America
In America is aptly titled. The semi-autobiographical tale of director Jim Sheridan (who cowrote the script with daughters Naomi and Kirsten), it 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 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, who is miraculous, again), 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.
Their 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. 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. While Johnny seeks work as an actor (running lines late with the girls), Sarah finds employment at a local ice cream parlor called Heaven. 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. 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 hope.
Thematic threads come together here, as E.T. represents a similar 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 who paints when he’s not slashing his canvases in agony and rage, and wails late into the night. Ravaged by an unnamed virus (whose initials are AIDS), 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”); they yell, “Trick or treat! Trick or treat!” He opens his door, looms over them with his bright wool scarf hanging long and limp, and the girls are instantly enchanted. 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, 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. 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 life, understandably. 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. Less sanguinely, he’s also an alien in America, where he must represent too much.