In America is by no means a bad movie. In fact, in some ways, it’s pretty good. It is definitely well directed, well acted, feels gritty and often leaves you feeling appalled. It begins innocuously enough with an Irish family crossing by car from Canada into the United States. They come to the USA not as tourists, but so that Johnny (Paddy Considine) can try to fulfill his ambition of being an actor in New York. Johnny and his wife Sarah (Samantha Morton) come with two precocious girls. The older, Christy (Sarah Bolger) carries a small early 80s video recorder and uses it to capture the intimacy of life with her family in the city. Her younger sister Ariel (Emma Bolger) specializes in being simply too cute for the world. Seriously! She is so achingly cute and lovely and it’s all you can do not to walk into the theater screen in order to give her a hug. For child actors, they are quite good.
The time is the early 1980s. After arriving in New York City, the family decides to call home the skiddiest of Manhattan’s skid rows. Moreover, because it is cheap, they end up in the ugliest tenement building in the city, which comes complete with drug addicts, losers, crazies and probable pedophiles. Their new apartment is so awful that pigeons fly in and out through the vacant skylights. The pad is Horrible with a capital H, so bad that most people on skid row don’t want to live there either. Yet, the girls don’t seem bothered by all the crime and filth. Moreover, for some bizarre reason, their parents aren’t nearly as paranoid as they should be monitoring their children in this exceptionally bad neighborhood.
Johnny has little luck finding an acting job. He spends most of his time going to auditions and acting out scripts in their ugly flat. Sarah helps the family scrape by working as a waitress. The girls seem generally inured to their bleak surroundings. And their lives become progressively more miserable. They suffer through a scorcher of a New York summer. They need cash so badly that they recycle bottles to collect five-cent deposits. They jostle pipes to try to get water out of them. A crazy neighbor a couple of floors down named Mateo (Djimon Hounsou) spends much of his time screaming and throwing things around.
Weeks, then months pass. The girls end up going to a local Catholic school. We learn that one of their children died falling down some stairs and the family is still crushed by the tragedy, each in their own way. When Halloween comes around, the girls are allowed to trick or treat their own crazy building, and end up knocking on Mateo’s door. Mateo looks crazy and you feel he is going to molest the girls for sure. Yet, he does not. In fact, Mateo is more than he looks and turns into the movie’s only interesting character. In the early 1980s, AIDS was just becoming visible. Mateo is ill and it is unclear what is killing him, but it is likely AIDS. He knows his time is short. Yet, through the girls he is introduced to their parents. A very unlikely friendship begins between this dying African American and this surreal Irish family planted in the midst of desperation.
Things continually go from bleak to bleaker. Sarah becomes pregnant and naturally, the pregnancy is a high risk one. When their situation gets more desperate and Sarah can no longer work, Johnny starts driving a cab at night. Also naturally, perhaps because she is Catholic, Sarah won’t consider an abortion, even though the doctor thinks her pregnancy will kill her and her baby.
I found myself frequently wanting to scream at these parents to get the hell out of New York and back to some place where the air is clean and crime is far away. Yet, they have lost all common sense. Little seems to matter except pandering to Johnny’s desire to be an actor, which seems ever elusive. Meanwhile, the pregnancy degrades, Mateo worsens as well, and all end up in the hospital together. Sarah tries to give birth and Mateo tries to die in a hospital bed. A baby is born, a man dies, Johnny finally lands an acting job and the movie ends.
Perhaps I gave too much away, but if you are renting the movie for a plot, that’s about it. Which for me raises the question: do all films have to have a message or at least a theme? Or can they just be a realistic portrayal of stuff happening? This movie falls into the latter category and is hardly unique, but it is somewhat unusual. The only other movie that immediately comes to mind in this genre is Dazed and Confused. Perhaps the movie is really about the family’s unlikely relationship with Mateo, and Hounsou does exceptionally well in his part. For most of us, the fact that not much meaningful happens is not a particularly compelling reason to see a movie. Still, it is a raw film so it will evoke feelings, and having those young girls around certainly makes the feelings more acute. I found myself appalled by the parents, impressed with the acting overall given the flimsy story, touched by Mateo’s transformation and in love with the two photogenic girls.
I really don’t know whether to praise or pan this film, so I will leave it unrated. IMDB viewers give it 7 out of 10 points, which means that most really liked it. It has a shot on video feel to it. However, given that there are so many other movies out there that have some meat to it, and this one just documents a mostly downer of an experience for a young family, I think you can find better ways to spend 105 minutes of your time.