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Movie Review: "In America"

Hey, I said it was the season, didn't I? I know there hasn't been much Cub writing here lately, but there hasn't been much Cub news, either, and so, since now is movie award season and I'm seeing a lot of them, here goes with another review, with a twist.

Yesterday, Chicago Sun-Times columnist Richard Roeper, who also reviews films with Roger Ebert in their own syndicated show, issued a challenge.

He wrote that everyone should go see "In America", and if we didn't like it, he would refund the ticket price, limited to the first 100 responses.

Never being one to shy away from a challenge like this, I went to see this film.

He's right, everyone. I bet he won't get any, much less 100, people who want their money back (well, unless some people are just being greedy).

This is a lyrical tale, written and directed by the Irish director Jim Sheridan ("In The Name of the Father", "My Left Foot") about an Irish family with two girls who emigrates from Ireland to New York. It's semi-autobiographical, as Sheridan himself did this in the 1980's, and his two daughters are the co-writers. Incidentally, some reviewers set this film in the '80s because one of the scenes involves the family going to see "E.T.", but keep in mind "E.T." was re-released a couple of years ago and this could just as easily be set in the present.

That's not really relevant, anyway. The two girls are the ones who steal this show. They are played by real-life sisters, Sarah and Emma Bolger, and Sarah Bolger might steal an Oscar nomination for her portrayal of the older sister, Christy, a ten-year-old wise beyond her years. At first you think she's not going to say a word and just hide behind the camcorder (yet another reason I don't think this is set in the '80s -- it's clearly a modern camcorder) she carries everywhere. But you realize soon enough that she, and the rest of the family, carries pain from the untimely death of their younger brother in what is made clear was an accident, but for which each of the survivors blames themselves. At one point Christy says, "Don't 'little girl' me -- I've been carrying this family on my back for over a year.", and your heart breaks for all of them. The father, a character based on Sheridan himself, is an aspiring actor who just can't seem to get a part, and has to drive a cab just to make enough money to, say, buy an air conditioner for his family in what turns out to be the most sweltering New York summer in years.

The family settles into what seems like almost a magical castle of a building in lower Manhattan, though it's populated with the usual collection of junkies, and one man whose door is nastily painted "KEEP AWAY". Soon enough we find that his name is Mateo (Djimon Hounsou, who was so good as the slave leader in "Amistad"), and he carries a different kind of pain. We expect him to hurt people, but when the girls knock on his door for their first American trick-or-treat, he turns out to have a true heart of gold.

There are other scenes involving the family and Mateo that I won't spoil here, because it's his humanity that helps all the family realize that they are indeed going to find their dream. Samantha Morton, who was so waif-like in "Minority Report", plays the mother, and she's hurt here too, but apart from Christy, she turns out to be the strongest one in the family.

This film is both intended to be taken literally, as a story of immigrants (they drive in through Canada and one of the girls says something that almost makes the immigration officers refuse them admission into the US), and figuratively, as it seems magic suffuses everyone involved. You'll see that there's a very good reason that "E.T." is the first American movie they all see. And there's a school assembly where Christy sings the Eagles' "Desperado" in a way that could nearly make you cry, she's so good.

There's more, but you get the point. Roeper's right. The Internet Movie Database gives the release year of this film as 2002, so it must have been out in the UK long before it got here, and it's not going to be in wide release in the US for another week or so.

Whenever it is, go see it. Worth the price of admission no matter what you have to pay.

AYRating: ****