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Film / In America

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"We heard Manhattan before we ever saw it, a thousand strange voices coming from everywhere."

In America is a 2002 Irish drama film directed by Jim Sheridan, starring Paddy Considine, Samantha Morton, Djimon Hounsou and Sarah Bolger in her film debut. It is mostly based on Sheridan's real life experiences when he moved to the USA for work.

The story is told from the perspective of Christy Sullivan (Bolger), a ten-year-old Irish girl whose family emigrates to America for a fresh start. She and her younger sister Ariel (played by Bolger's real life sister Emma) have recently lost their baby brother Frankie to a brain tumour and the family is struggling to cope. Navigating the hardships of their new life in New York City, and a growing friendship with an African man called Mateo (Hounsou) who lives in their building, help the family to grow and move past the tragedy.

This film provides examples of:

  • Aerith and Bob: An Irish family with names such as Johnny, Sarah, Christy, Frankie and...Ariel? We can only assume the parents were massive fans of The Little Mermaid (1989).
  • Babies Make Everything Better: Played with. Sarah getting pregnant and bringing a new baby into the family does help them get over Frankie, but their issues are resolved through other means, and Johnny does point out the difficulties another child would bring to the family.
  • Bad "Bad Acting": Averted. Johnny has trouble getting roles because he can longer express proper emotions in his acting. We don't see too much of him in action, outside of brief snippets of auditions but, as they're for theatre, obviously different skills are required.
  • Bait the Dog: A bum appears numerous times in the film, acting friendly to Johnny and offering him food stamps at one point. In the third act he tries to mug him.
  • Big Applesauce: The family move to and live in New York. This is based on the real-life experiences of director Jim Sheridan and his daughters (who co-wrote the film with him); they moved to Hell's Kitchen at one point in the 80s.
  • Birth-Death Juxtaposition: As Mateo dies, the newborn baby Sarah shows signs of life.
  • Calling the Old Man Out: A sadder version of this trope than normal; when Johnny asks Christy, "Are you okay, little girl?", she snaps, "Don't 'little girl' me. I've been carrying this family on my back for over a year."
  • Chekhov's Gun: As Sarah gets to know Mateo and his past, she at one point says "you were rich", and he gives her a look (as if possibly to hint that it's not a past tense thing). He ends up covering Sarah's extensive hospital bill right before he dies.
  • Children Are Innocent: Ariel. Best underlined by...
    Ariel: What's a transvestite?
    Christy: A man who dresses up as a woman.
    Ariel: For Halloween?
  • The City vs. the Country: Done realistically meaning the family accepts the hardships of moving to America but ultimately find their feet without having to return home.
  • CPR: Clean, Pretty, Reliable: Averted. Mateo falls down the stairs, and Christy attempts to perform CPR on him; saying she'd done the same to her late brother. Everyone warns her away, either because Mateo is HIV-positive or they're afraid she'll hurt him by doing it wrong.
  • Culture Clash: Plenty of cultural differences between Ireland and America are pointed out.
    • Johnny is astounded when he's only short 25 cents to buy a $2 plug and the cashier insists on the full price.
    • The Sullivans make their Halloween costumes by hand, not realising that everyone in their area would buy them.
    • Johnny and Sarah have never even heard of trick-or-treating.
    • Johnny is suspicious of Mateo at first, likely because Ireland's population was quite homogeneous up until the 90s and he would have possibly grown up never seeing a non-white person before.
  • Dead Guy Junior: Ariel says they'll name the new baby after Mateo. It turns out to be a girl so they just give her Mateo as a middle name. It would have been a straight example if Sarah had died like the doctors thought she would.
  • Empathic Environment: It starts to rain during Sarah and Johnny's steamy sex scene just before Sarah starts talking about their dead son.
  • Fallen-on-Hard-Times Job: Sarah can't get a teaching job, so she works at an ice cream parlour instead. Johnny is seen working as a taxi driver as well.
  • Fanservice: The family arrives in New York during a very hot summer so Paddy Considine spends about half an hour running around in vests and tank tops while Samantha Morton gets a big Leg Focus scene.
  • "Friends" Rent Control: Averted completely. The family must sell their car to pay the deposit on their run-down apartment (which is in a particularly dodgy neighborhood), Sarah must work overtime at an ice cream parlour and Johnny works as a taxi driver to barely scrape even.
  • Good Victims, Bad Victims: Mateo counts as a 'good' victim because he got HIV through a bad blood transfusion.
  • Green-Eyed Monster: Johnny is jealous of Mateo's growing friendship with his wife at first, but then he learns that he's dying.
  • How's Your British Accent?: When Johnny is auditioning for a play, he's asked to do a London accent. Paddy Considine uses his real voice for that line.
  • In-Universe Camera: Christy has one that helps document some of their lives in America.
  • Informed Flaw: Ariel at one point complains that Christy never plays with her and only speaks to her camcorder. Every other scene between the sisters shows them playing together, and Christy never once shuns Ariel or wants to be left alone.
  • Innocent Innuendo: Ariel to the lady in the ice cream parlour "Mummy's playing with Daddy upstairs".
  • Insane Troll Logic: Sarah points out the oddness of the Irish language's word for a black man literally translating as 'blue man' - because the actual word for black (dubh) put with the word for man (fear dubh) means 'the devil'.
    Mateo: They've got us figured out, huh?
  • Irony: Christy and Ariel want to go trick or treating outside, however Sarah rejects the idea saying that they cannot threaten junkies and cross-dressers in the neighbourhood, despite their apartment building having those types of people.
  • It's a Costume Party, I Swear!: An unintentional variation. The girls go to a Halloween party at their school wearing homemade costumes only to find everyone else has bought theirs.
  • Jobless Parent Drama: Subverted, Johnny is a struggling actor looking for work while Sarah makes ends meet by working at a ice cream store. Presumably, since the family moved during the summer, it would suit the family better to have Johnny at home with the girls. Once school starts, he takes up work as a taxi driver.
  • Magical Negro: Mateo is a bit of a Reconstruction. He is very spiritual and helps the family out but is actually dying of an illness and is deeply depressed over losing his own wife and son. Johnny initially resents him for being a better father figure to the girls but ultimately the relationship with him helps the family for the better. His money also helps the family with Sarah's hospital bill.
  • Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: Sarah's "wishes" are never said to be actually magic or just lucky coincidence but the first one gets them through the border and the second helps Johnny win the ET doll and stop them from blowing all their money.
  • Mistaken for Gay: Very briefly. Johnny asks Mateo if he's in love with Sarah. He responds "I'm in love with you", and Johnny spends a few seconds assuming that's what he means. Then Mateo launches into a Rousing Speech about how he's in love with "anything that lives".
  • Mondegreen Gag: Ariel thinks The Star-Spangled Banner goes "José can you see", but Christy corrects her.
  • Mouthy Kid: Ariel's attitude is not unlike a nagging old woman.
  • Never Say "Die": Mateo lies to Ariel saying he's an alien and going away to another planet instead of dying of a serious illness. Which makes it all the more shocking when Ariel blatantly says the word "dying" later in the film.
  • Never Trust a Trailer: Much like Slumdog Millionaire this was marketed as a happy uplifting family film, leaving out all the angst and tear-jerking including the fact that the family had recently lost a child.
  • Ooh, Me Accent's Slipping: Samantha Morton's Irish accent tends to slip whenever she has to say words like "can't".
  • Parents as People: Despite being Good Parents, Johnny and Sarah are shown to be realistically flawed human beings. Both are grieving for a child, and trying to cope with life in a new country.
  • The Pollyanna: Ariel is a Cheerful Child for the most part, though she does have her moments.
  • Pretty Fly for a White Guy: Johnny has to deal with a taxi passenger that's a white Wall Street broker - who then tries to demonstrate that he can rap.
  • Replacement Goldfish: The O'Sullivans have another baby to function as one for the deceased Frankie (although it's a girl). Especially notable is Christy's guilt for not being able to save Frankie, and she gets the chance to help her new sister live with a blood transfusion.
  • Rule of Three: Frankie gives Christy three wishes. The O'Sullivans have a third child by the end.
  • Scary Black Man: Mateo initially has a reputation as "the man who screams", and is framed as a very intimidating figure. But of course he turns out to be a Nice Guy who's just aloof because their building is full of drug addicts.
  • Shirtless Scene:
    • Mateo spends most of his initial scenes with his shirt off, showing off Djimon Honsou's physique.
    • Johnny likewise gets one in a sex scene with Sarah.
  • Stepford Smiler: Sarah who puts on a brave face for the sake of the children, though is deeply depressed over losing Frankie.
    "Make believe you're happy, Johnny. For the kids."
  • Token Black Friend: Sarah has a black co-worker at the ice cream parlor called Marina, who only ever factors into the story to mind the children when she's busy.
  • Toplessness from the Back: In the sex scene, Sarah is topless but is only ever shown from behind or with her hands covering everything.
  • Trademark Favorite Food: Sarah's lemon drops, which the children believe are magic.
  • Welcome to the Big City: Played very straight with the first sequence of the family entering New York.
  • When She Smiles: Christy is very solemn and serious in the film's opening. But when the family pass through the Lincoln Tunnel and are dazzled by the lights of Manhattan, she can't help but smile.
  • Wise Beyond Her Years: Christy is only ten but is knowledgeable about transvestites, how babies are conceived and how to perform CPR. She also bravely allows herself to be used for a blood transfusion so that her baby sister can live. Part of this may be a remnant of the character being written to be a couple of years older.