Watching Jim Sheridan's "In America," the semiautobiographical tale of an Irish family starting life anew in New York, you'll ask yourself a question common to immigrants throughout the ages: "Where are we?" The shots of Times Square are all distinctly present-day in their Disneyfied glitz, and the clothing and hairstyles likewise seem freshly minted. Yet at one point, the uprooted clan takes in a theatrical screening of 1982's E.T.; papa Johhny (Paddy Considine) even goes to great lengths to win a figure of the friendly space traveler for his brood. To further confuse the issue, oldest kid Christy (Sara Bolger) carries a camcorder, which were hardly de rigueur when Spielberg's lovable alien first took his famous bike ride past a lustrous moon.
Sheridan has admitted (to Entertainment Weekly) that he didn't have the money to pull off a genuine period piece; as for the camcorder business, he's counting on the mass delusion that they've "been around forever." It's hard to support a film that depends on cultural amnesia, but any ill will you could harbor against "In America" -- and there are a few reasons for it -- is destined to bounce limply off its sturdy, gleaming facade of good intentions.
Anyone who's ever begun a frightening love affair with a new locale will respond to Sheridan's film, which finds timeless (there, I've said it) appeal in the misadventures of Johnny, his wife, Sarah (Samantha Morton), and their daughters, Christy and Ariel (Emma Bolger). Hauling a heavy air-conditioning unit across town to a tenement flat and learning the complex customs of Halloween are just two of the fish-out-of-water experiences this typical yet beguiling family endures -- vignettes plucked from the precipice of kitsch by smart choices in writing and casting. Sheridan ("My Left Foot," "In the Name of the Father") penned the story in collaboration with his own children, Naomi and Kirsten, basing it on their own recollections of alighting on these shores. To play his daughters' on-screen counterparts, he cast a pair of real-life sisters, and the result is a pair of performances that are simply adorable -- not movie adorable, but genuine, "I'd almost consider having some myself" adorable.
Naturally, an important element of growing up in a big city is learning to live with people of different colors and sexual persuasions. And this is one area in which the movie gets in real trouble, setting up a mysterious upstairs neighbor as a black bogeyman and then abruptly transforming him into a saintly figure of tortured artistry. In the real New York, you have to sit on a waiting list for months if you want to live in a building so stocked with stereotypes, much less have them contained in the same person. But this potentially offensive subplot is excusable as the foil for a developing story thread about the family's deceased son, whose fate comes into greater focus as the film advances. The absent Frankie's memory weighs on Johnny and Sarah, pulling them apart in subtle ways that may at times be imperceptible to anyone who hasn't seen such a calamity up close. Coming to grips with their loss is the way for this family to move on. To quote another Irish poet, what they find "In America" is a tribute to all that you can't leave behind.