Director: Jim Sheridan. Ire-UK. 2002. 103 mins

A heart-warming portrait of an Irish family's life and death struggles, In America marks another uplifting human drama from writer-director Jim Sheridan. Beautifully acted by the entire cast, its sure-footed mixture of laughter and tears is on the sentimental side but should win over even the hardest of hearts. Broad-based in its appeal, it will require the tender loving care of a committed distributor to maximise its potential, especially without the draw of the big league stars that have helped propel previous Sheridan films like In The Name Of The Father and The Boxer to commercial success. Fox Searchlight releases the film in North America.

Blending understated realism with fairytale romanticism, the film begins as the Sullivan family drive over the border from Canada to America and wind up wide-eyed and mesmerised by the twinkling lights of Manhattan by night. The film's point-of-view is provided by the oldest daughter, 10-year-old Christy (Sarah Bolger), while the charm is supplied by Emma Bolger as her impish, younger sister Ariel. It transpires that the family are starting a new life in New York after the tragic death of a young son. Mother Sarah (Morton) takes employment in an ice-cream parlour whilst dad Johnny (Considine) drives a taxi and endures endless, futile acting auditions.

Moving into a rundown apartment in a neighbourhood populated by drug addicts and down-and-outs, the Sullivans strive to rebuild a sense of normality as the suffocating humidity of summer gives way to the snowy sidewalks of winter. Believing that she is the one holding the family together, Christy observes all the pressures and strains on the family unit as a stubborn father refuses to accept his loss and her mother risks her life to become pregnant again. She also has the measure of their Boo Radley-like neighbour Mateo (Hounsou), an angry, terminally ill artist who ultimately becomes the family's guardian angel and saviour.

Episodic in nature, the film transcends its soap-opera material thanks to the bright humour and sharp observations of the script. A family trip to the fairground, a snowball fight or a Halloween meal all push forward our understanding of the characters and reveal the issues that face them. Consequently, Sheridan is able to build a potent drama without any crude tugging at the heartstrings. The family are never made to beg for sympathy; their plight itself is enough to secure our emotional involvement.

The two scene-stealing sisters set the tone for the rest of the cast. Bright, unaffected and authentic, they convey all the innocence, wonder and wisdom of real children without the cloying sense of calculation that can sometimes adhere to professional child actors. Considine and Morton are their equal in finding the truth of their characters and making the audience believe in the reality of the situation. Saddled with a sketchier role, Hounsou brings a powerful physical presence and vulnerability to the angelic Mateo.

Wrapped in the warm, glowing cinematography of Declan Quinn, In America ultimately becomes a heartfelt salute to the family's unquenchable spirit and man's ability to survive and accept even the darkest moments of human existence.

Prod co: Hell's Kitchen
Int'l sales:
20th Century Fox
Prods: Jim Sheridan, Arthur Lappin
Co prod:
Paul Myler
Jim Sheridan, Naomi Sheridan, Kirsten Sheridan
Declan Quinn
Prod des:
Mark Geraghty
Naomi Geraghty
Gavin Friday, Maurice Seezer
Main cast:
Samantha Morton, Paddy Considine, Sarah Bolger, Emma Bolger, Djimon Hounsou