In America (2002) is a movie that worms its way into your heart and takes up residence.
It moves audiences in profound ways. It feels real. Authentic.
It ought to. Many of the scenes in the film — about a family of Irish immigrants arriving in the Big Apple — were lifted directly from the lives of director Jim Sheridan and his daughters, Naomi and Kirsten, who collaborated on the screenplay.
Moreover, it’s a film that plays well with adults (who can’t help but identify with the Irish parents portrayed by Paddy Considine and Samantha Morton) and with young viewers (who discover kindred spirits in acting sisters Sarah and Emma Bolger).
Here are the facts: In 1980 the Dublin-born Sheridan, then an actor/playwright with two young daughters, emigrated to Canada and from there to New York City where he found an apartment in a run-down tenement in Hell’s Kitchen.
He scrambled for work, finally landing a gig with the city’s Irish Arts Center. Within a decade he had made his first film, the award-winning My Left Foot, but for several years the family struggled to survive on the mean streets of Manhattan.
Sheridan has said that he initially envisioned the film as “a funny comedy of coming to New York. But I could never make it work and I never had an ending.”
He asked his teenaged daughters to contribute to the screenplay employing their own perspective on this family mini-saga.
“They both wrote 120 pages where they were the heroes,” Sheridan told an interviewer. “They completely changed the direction of the story.”
It took eight years of on-and-off writing for the Sheridans to come up with a screenplay that satisfied everyone by splitting the focus between the adults and the children. One of the last additions to the script — which Sheridan credits with giving the entire enterprise dramatic shape — was a plot thread about the death of the couple’s son. It was based on the death of Sheridan’s own brother at age 10.
But there are many lighthearted moments pulled from real life. Like a scene in which the father lugs an air conditioner down a city street, up several flight of stairs and into his family’s sweltering apartment. Sheridan now confesses that he stole an A.C. from the arts center where he worked lest his family melt in the brutal New York summer. (And, yes, it really did blow all the fuses the first time it was plugged in.)
Speaking of being blown away, it’s impossible to watch In America without falling in love with the performances of the two Bolger sisters.
“As we get older and lose our innocence, we lose our relationship to joy,” Sheridan has explained. “Joy is the hardest thing for an actor to perform. You can see it in a repressed state like Jim Carrey or a sexual state like Marilyn Monroe, but you rarely see pure joy. And those kids have it."
Sheridan met the older girl, Emma, during auditions for child performers. She was one of the first children to undergo the process; later Sheridan was testing another girl when he felt a tug on his jacket.
“I turned around and it was Emma just looking at me. It was like I had crossed some line of etiquette. And she looked at me with pity and said, ‘Is she reading my part?’
“So I tried to stare her out and it didn't work, she just kept focused, so I realized this kid has self-esteem, which is important. So I said, ‘No, nobody's reading your part, you're cast.’ So I really hadn't auditioned any of the other 200 kids.
“And she then said ‘My sister's down in the car’.”
See Bob's general introduction to The Golden Door film series.
About the Author
Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He's married to the former Ellen Vaughan; they are the proud parents of LA-based comedian, writer, director and TV personality Blair Butler. He used to be a dog person but now lives with two cats, thus demonstrating the flexibility of the human condition.