One of the things I find remarkable about little girls in literature and in real life is that so often they are able to approach and charm complete strangers, even if the stranger is feared as a monster. The classic example is the encounter of the little girl with the Frankenstein monster. Great tension is achieved in the story by making the reader or viewer believe that a precious little girl is about to be harmed. In fact, many stories have it that the girl charms the stranger and brings about his redemption in the eyes of the audience.
In America—released in 2002—is remarkable in two major ways. First, it makes excellent use of the interactions of the girls Christy (Sarah Bolger) and Ariel (Emma Bolger) with the characters in their world. In fact, this is one of only two films—the other being The Saddle Club series—where I was compelled to take a look solely based on the image on the box. Secondly, it has that intangible quality you get when you see something that is someone’s labor of love. Hollywood’s cookie-cutter methods do not lend themselves to achieving this potential and it is a delight when something like this manages to reach the screen.
In America was produced by Jim Sheridan and is meant to be largely autobiographical. After an Irish couple suffer the tragic loss of their son Frankie, they immigrate to the U.S. to make a new life for themselves. Although there is some tension regarding Johnny’s (the father) inability to express grief, he does his level best to scrape out a living for himself, his wife Sarah, who is pregnant, and his two girls in the urban jungle of New York. Christy (the elder) is obsessed with her camcorder, as if not to miss one precious moment of her surviving family members. Ariel is the younger and has a disarming forthright exuberance. The girls are played by actual sisters, which helps with the interpersonal chemistry on the screen. Here they are seen entering the U.S. under the pretense of tourism.
Like many struggling families, a parent’s inventiveness can be remarkable. Early in the film they cannot even afford a window-mounted air conditioning unit, so Johnny rigs up a shower for the girls to cool off.
On Halloween, the girls trick-or-treat in the building, but given the cynical culture of that neighborhood, they cannot get anyone to answer the door and the parents listen upstairs to their girls’ progress hoping they will not be disappointed. In frustration, they pound on every door, including one that even the other neighbors stay away from, and persist even after the inhabitant yells at them to go away. They are finally rewarded by the sudden appearance of an angry-looking black man. When he looks down at the girls in their costumes, he composes himself and invites them in.
It turns out that Mateo (Djimon Hounsou) is an artist and has been angry because of his own terminal illness, and the girls charm and comfort him, especially Ariel, whom he picks up to look around for some treasure to give them; he settles on a jar of coins.
The stresses of survival and concern over the coming baby has put Johnny at the end of his rope and it affects his relationship with the girls. Ariel notices this and gets herself worked up to the point of emotional breakdown, screaming, “Where is my father! You’re not my father!” again and again. He tries to console her and calm her down by putting cold water on her face and she calms down but is clearly not convinced.
After the family’s introduction to Mateo, an enduring bond forms between them. Unbeknownst to the family, he decided to leave a substantial fortune to them upon his death which took care of their medical expenses, and they christened their new baby daughter Sarah Mateo. In this final scene, Johnny and the girls look up at the moon from their balcony to say goodbye to Mateo and Christy helps her dad say a proper goodbye to Frankie as well.
It is easy to see that Jim Sheridan put his heart into this story and it was such an intensely personal one, it made sense for him to put the focus on the girls instead of himself which was a double blessing. Not only did we get to meet the delightful Bolger sisters, but the other actors testified to their uplifting presence on the set, and they most certainly contributed to the quality of the production. The movie was dedicated to Sheridan’s own lost son and undoubtedly served in his and his family’s grieving process.
On a personal note, I noticed repeatedly Sarah Bolger’s startling screen presence. The scenes I have chosen here really don’t do her justice and are meant to illustrate important plot points, but whenever there is a scene where she looks into the camera, it is quite hypnotic.
IMDb details (here); Note: the image shown on IMDb is not the one I saw in the video store.