Saturday, November 20, 2004

"In America"

Does It Bite?

A Munkebite Review

I have eyed this film on the shelf at my local video store for some time. There are only two copies of it. I have often wondered whether video stores were trying to tell us something about the movie by the number of copies available to customers. One would tend to conclude the poor ones were poorly stocked. But, then, I noticed 867,332 copies of "Elf."

I picked "In America."

There's not too terribly much that is novel or original here. An Irish family comes to America escaping personal tragedy and searching for a new start in Manhattan (see, nothing new). Against obvious semi-insurmountable odds, the family rumbles into the Big Apple in a beat up station wagon, scrapes around for a drug-ridden apartment complex and tries to find their collective soul and joie de vivre in a place poised to steal it all away. Themes of loss, illness, hope, life vs. death, a father finding his heart again.....all in a pot of poverty.... ooze forth, sublty begging the question of when and how this movie is going to make you cry.

Movies often blow it, blurting out and flaunting their ability to jerk out the tears. Some movies can revere these moments of sentiment rather well. I think this one did well for the most part. I found myself rooting for the family and their response to adversity didn't disappoint with the tired cliches and soliloquy. The most refreshing aspect was the telling of the story through the eyes of the eldest daughter, cleverly depicting her perspective and commentary through the lens of a video camera. At times though, she seems a wee bit too ripe/wise for her age as the plot seems to impose upon her. And her younger (real life) sister- ever seeming ready to explode in cute hystrionics- provides the keenest insight into her emotionally stubbed father. However, this sister-team of Irish child-actresses- Sarah and Emma Bolger- absorb these fleeting idiosyncresies.

There is a frankly stunning sequence which made me wonder if the scene was even scripted where the girls are in their father's cab talking on the CB to the central station. There is something in this that was totally natural and you could feel the interplay between the sisters as they wrestled back and forth with the microphone to explain where their daddy was. You felt like you were watching two sisters being sisters and not two sisters acting. While not crucial to the plot/character development, it did assuage fears that the movie was brave enough to go with the strong performances and enegies of these sisters. Kudos for keeping the cameras rolling.

The movie is based partly on the real life experiences of director Jim Sheridan, who managed his cinematic catharsis quite successfully by employing the two girls as his storytellers. Quite possibly any other story-telling vehicle would have made this whole exercise difficult.

Samantha Morton (you know, the "precog" on Minority Report?) does deposit a worthy performance which garnered her 3 Academy Award nominations. Djimon Hounsou's character was an anchor plot-wise, but lacked resolution. But the stars were the girls and their exuberance and free-spirited excursion worked.

There is much to reflect on theologically here too....the question of God, the goodness of God, pain, evil, love, afterlife, family, providence, etc. While the movie may not come out theologically sound enough across the board, it is salient enough in the sheer human drama to stimulate deepening conversation and personal exploration.

4 Out Of 5 Bites