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Cinema Signal:

Journey of Hope:
The Story of Irish Immigration to America


. "In America" (Aka, "East of Harlem")

In this modernized version of immigration to America, director Jim Sheridan starts out by showing us that it doesn't necessarily include that classic moment when the boat crosses before the Statue of Liberty or that the travelers need be part of the downtrodden masses. In the case of the family here, a trip from Ireland by way of Canada brings the new arrivals into a slum part of Manhattan east of Harlem by way of a road trip in a worn station wagon.

The motivation behind the relocation isn't tyrannical threats of a despotic political system. Instead, it seems to be an attempt to flee painful memories of a dead child, a tragedy that affects all four: dad Johnny (Paddy Considine), mom Sarah (Samantha Morton) and the two girls: 11 year-old narrator Christy (Sarah Bolger) and little Ariel (Emma Bolger). Real life sisters, these two will get the heartstrings in motion the minute they make a play on words regarding the gender preferences in a city called "Man-hattan." These are cutesies with talent beyond expectation.

Again update-wise, the breadwinner doesn't go out looking for a job on a production line or as a welder's assistant. He's an actor and he goes to auditions. Plus, the girls help him read his lines. This is 2002.

From the get-go, trust becomes a major issue, one that applies to their landing in an apartment of a building honeycombed with drug dealers and street denizens. Not the ideal for the sensitive eyes and ears of pre-teen children. These, though, are no ordinary creatures. They are precocious beyond belief. And, it's they who tend to break barriers in the family's contacts with fellow tenants, and foster understandings that become friendships.

Most notable is the bond that develops with black artist, HIV victim, Mateo (Djimon Hounsou) who lives in an apartment one flight down. Forebodingly big and threatening looking, his is the last door the parents would want their offspring to knock on for Halloween trick or treat, but the knock of innocence on a door that says, "Go Away", and their charging in with eyes that see no danger, develops into a bond of warmth and trust.

All of which is to the good as each family member struggles with the tragic death of son, Frankie, an issue that is Sheridan's central one for resolution. But, as he weaves that theme through the family's highs and lows, the standout in this semi-autobiographical tale is the performance by the Bolger sisters. The writing may be sentimental to the occasional point of triteness, but these girls have such a sense of reality that they convey it all with a delivery that's nothing but endearing and honest.

Despite Samantha Morton's attractive spirit, Considine's devoted fatherhood, and Hounsou's dominating presence, the sister's are the show. It's as though everything else is the packaging for the gift of their performance. And, despite what may sound like directorial indulgence here or there, no true off notes spoil the uplifting pattern of this original take on an immigrant story of love and hope. It may take place in a setting of grit and despair, but it is 180 degrees away from impoverished poor stereotypes of an earlier time.

Before we go talking about award possibilities here, let me be the first to put these child actresses at the top of the Best Supporting list.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  


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The family of Irish immigrants making a life in Manhattan
Preparing for Halloween


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