There's a fine line between sentiment and sentimentality, true emotion and false, and it's hard to achieve the one without risking the other. Case in point: Jim Sheridan's In America, which tugs at all the familiar heartstrings but does it with such restraint and grace that we never feel like we've been had. Written by Sheridan's daughters, Naomi and Kirsten, In America is a fictionalized account of the family's move from Dublin to New York City back in the early-'80s. Sheridan, who would go on to direct such unsentimental movies as My Left Foot and In the Name of the Father, was all but penniless at the time. But for his two daughters, Hell's Kitchen might as well have been Heaven's Romper Room. Or so we may infer from In America, which turns the family's immigrant story into a fairy tale, albeit a fairy tale caked in dirt and grime and then only lightly dusted with glitter.
Early on, the movie seems almost too memoiristic -- family lore given the full cinematic treatment, as when Johnny (Paddy Considine), the Sheridan stand-in, drags an air-conditioner through the streets of Manhattan and up several flights of stairs, only to discover that he needs a plug attachment he can't afford. But the Sheridans have added a plot element that gives In America a surprising amount of emotional heft: The entire family is grieving the loss of its only son. (Sheridan lost a brother when he was young.) Most movies would lean on that like a crutch, but this one manages to walk on its own two feet, thanks to searing performances by Considine and Samantha Morton (as Johnny's wife). Credit also goes to Sheridan for his skillful handling of Sarah and Emma Bolger as the young girls who, confronted with a top-floor walk-up smeared with bird shit, ask whether they get to keep the pigeons.