Written with Sheridan's daughters Naomi and Kirsten, In America is the story of a family of Irish immigrants who arrive in New York City in the early 1980s to escape a crippling grief. Father Johnny (Paddy Considine) is an aspiring actor with a knack for accents. Like most actors in New York, he has to find a way to support his habit of auditioning for parts he usually doesn't get, so he takes up driving a cab. In Ireland, mother Sarah (Samantha Morton) was a teacher. But in America she can't find comparable work and must settle for a job behind the counter in an ice cream parlor.
Johnny and Sarah have two beautiful and precocious daughters: Christy (Sarah Bolger), who is 11, and Ariel (Emma Bolger), who is 6. Johnny and Sarah also had a son named Frankie, but he died from a wasting disease caused by a brain disorder. Frankie was the victim of cruel fate (something none of us can understand and very few of us can accept), but Johnny and Sarah nonetheless blame themselves and without saying so out loud, each other. What the parents are too low to understand is that their daughters blame themselves, too.
The Sheridans' script never makes a clear connection between Frankie's death and the family's arrival in New York. We first meet them at a border crossing between Canada and America when Ariel blurts out that her dad is "not working." Suddenly Johnny is grilled by an immigration officer, and it seems the family may be turned back. But there are lots of things we don't know about this beginning. What was the family doing in Canada, and how long how had they been there? Where did they get the car they are driving? How do they come to make contact with the owner of the decaying building where they rent an apartment? And since there's an obvious concern about proper work documents, how do Johnny and Sarah manage to find employment when they have been granted entrance to the United States only as visitors. I am well aware that such employment is achieved but undocumented workers all the time, but In America raises this issue in its opening scene and then abandons it for the rest of the movie.
A lot of the film is like that, episodic and barely connected. When the family goes to a fair, Ariel wants Johnny to win her an E.T. doll at a ball-toss booth, and he ends up betting the family's entire cash reserve on a prize of little value. But just when we think Johnny suffers from a gambling disorder, that aspect of his personality disappears forever. Perhaps we're supposed to see Johnny as suffering from obsessive/compulsive disorder. When Sarah says she's hot, Johnny storms out of the apartment, finds a battered, used air conditioner and hauls it home on foot through typical Manhattan traffic. He even carries it up five flights of stairs. But the air conditioning episode ends and evanesces like much else in this film.
Even the family's relationship with a neighbor largely stands as a self-contained piece. On Halloween Ariel and Christy make their first attempt at trick-or-treat in their building, but no one answers the door until a muscular, bare-chested and thoroughly irritated black man named Mateo (Djimon Hounsou) slams into the hall to snarl at the two girls. But Mateo is really a sweetheart, whose angry scowl melts into a touching eagerness to please once he gets a close look at the two wide-eyed Irish children. Mateo is dying, it turns out, perhaps of AIDS, though that's never specified, and we can only connect his story to any larger theme by wondering if this family isn't beset with astonishing bad luck.
All this said, In America is greater than the sum of its parts. In a concluding episode Sarah becomes pregnant, even though Irish doctors had told her that she couldn't. As it is, an American physician advises her to terminate the pregnancy or risk dying in childbirth. But she presses forward, desperate to replace the lost child. But Frankie is irreplaceable, of course, and only in accepting his death can any of the family members begin to heal. In that clear-eyed observation, In America is very wise and its story ultimately affecting.