In America is a strange hybrid of a film. On the one hand, it asks its audience to take some preposterous mental leaps, to the point where the movie verges on fantasy, without ever explicitly crossing that line. As a result, the scenarios in which the film's family of Irish immigrants find themselves are almost never completely believable.
But In America (rated PG-13 for some sexuality, drug references, brief violence, and bad language) has much more to offer than the gritty realism one might expect in a tale of struggling Irish immigrants. It wonderfully balances grief with hope, and is both life-affirming and, subtly, pro-America. The movie contains a few references to the seedier aspects of New York life and one un-Hollywood sex scene between a husband and wife.
The immigrants in question are parents Johnny and Sarah, and their two daughters, Christy and Ariel. While the family's wide-eyed wonder is somewhat diminished by their living arrangements-they end up in a decaying apartment building-it never fully evaporates. Their new life in America may be tough, but it is never without possibility, and these grateful outsiders never become victims.
Johnny is an actor-struggling to find a role-and nighttime cabby. Most of the family's earnings come from Sarah's job at a coffee shop called (unsubtly) Heaven. Audiences will probably have a hard time believing that Johnny spends his days at auditions while his family lives in squalor or that Christy and Ariel wander the streets on their own, free from harm. Or, in a key scene, that the sisters enter the apartment of Mateo, "the man who screams," without hesitation.
But while In America's script is somewhat episodic and may stretch credibility, the characters resonate. Mateo is an African artist dying of AIDS, filled with rage, his violent vocal explosions echoing throughout the apartment building. And yet he is also in love with life. When Sarah discovers that she is pregnant, and that both her life and the baby's are in danger, Mateo counsels Johnny and Sarah (in terms that might make a Planned Parenthood counselor shudder) to keep the "unborn child."
In America's hopeful tone, remarkable performances, and flawed but fascinating engagement with basic ideas like life, death, and heaven make it a standout among the films being recognized as the best of 2003.