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In America

  • compiled by Jeffrey Overstreet Copyright Christianity Today International
  • 2003 1 Jan
In America

from Film Forum, 12/04/03

Writer/Director Jim Sheridan's In America is probably not going to win Oscars. It doesn't have explosions, swords, monsters, a sweeping sentimental soundtrack, or a platitude at the end that gift-wraps "the moral of the story." The preferred Hollywood credo of "believe in yourself" is nowhere to be seen. In fact, if In America assures of anything, it is that life is full of hardship: the hardship of raising a family, of making a living, of dealing with death and disease, of enduring life's unexpected crises.

But it is also a film about human kindness, about the value of childlike faith, and about the strength that marital fidelity and faithful parenting can provide in hard times. Ultimately, while one of the characters still has grave doubts about the existence of a benevolent God, the film leans in the direction of faith and the existence of grace. In America is one of the year's richest, most rewarding films. While it deals with subject matter that makes inappropriate material for children, discerning grownups will find much to think about and discuss.

Sheridan's film is not his autobiography. Still, as an Irishman who brought his family to America, he fills this film with intimate details and echoes of things that really happened. The story follows an Irish family as they move to Manhattan and try to build a new life while their money quickly disappears. They have good reason to leave their homes and their past. The loss of a child, Frankie, to a brain tumor, has left all of them wounded and soul-weary.

In this way, the film quietly reminds us of the loss and trauma that still aches in Manhattan's broken heart. While the film does not directly relate to the events of the World Trade Center attacks—it is set sometime in the 80s—the story resonates partly because of the city's present wounded state. It is as if Sheridan is offering what he can from his own life to comfort and encourage those who are still struggling with the loss of irreplaceable loved ones.

And yet, while the film brings all of these things to mind, the strongest impression that lingered after my first viewing of the film was laughter: healthy, hearty, joyous laughter. Where the other acclaimed year-end dramas of 2003—Mystic River and 21 Grams—let their emotional burdens bury any hope for humor and warmth, In America is alive with laughter and uplift, all of it earned.

Sheridan has created a totally convincing family. Paddy Considine plays Jim, a volatile and hard-working actor. Samantha Morton is his luminous, emotional and strong-willed wife Sarah. Sisters Sarah and Emma Bolger as their spirited daughters Christy and Ariel. As Jim strives to find bill-paying work, Sarah supplements their income and deals with the onset of an unexpected pregnancy. Christy gives the rather tempestuous family dynamic a quiet but somber center, while Ariel is the source of their cheer and delight, a feisty and inquisitive girl with a fearlessness that leads them to unexpected—and sometimes important encounters. In fact, thanks to Ariel, soon the family has to contend with "the Screaming Man," a troubled artist named Matteo (Djimon Hounsou of Gladiator) who hides behind a door marked KEEP AWAY.

The film ends on a note that lacks resolution. We can see the beginnings of healing, but it also offers the artist's honesty about doubt. At one point, Christy admits her own frustrations with God by admitting that her private prayer-like conversations with the lost family member ended when, as she puts it, "I realized I was talking to myself." In America does not end with an exhortation that "His eye is on the sparrow" or that "All things work together for good." But it does allow for the possibility that there might be a Higher Power working to bring grace and healing if we can bring ourselves to own up to our grief and our anger. In fact, it suggests that by blessing those who are foreign, or even frightening, to us—by embracing them without fear or prejudice—we create a larger space for love and grace to do a work that blesses us all.

While other filmmakers this season have filled their dramas with angst, anger, and a bleak sense of determinism, Jim Sheridan has given us one that stares the scary questions in the face, admits that it cannot answer all of them, and yet offers glimmers of hope and a generous helping of uplifting humor.

Next week, Film Forum will offer links to the responses of other religious press critics. (At this writing, none have been posted.)

Meanwhile, mainstream critics are greeting the film with rave reviews. Roger Ebert (Chicago Sun-Times) says, "It's not the typical story of turn-of-the-century immigrants facing prejudice and struggle, but a modern story … involving new sets of problems, such as racism and the drug addiction in the building and the neighborhood. It is also about the way poverty humiliates those who have always prided themselves on being able to cope. [The film] is perceptive about the countless ways in which it is hard to be poor and a stranger in a new land."

from Film Forum, 12/23/03

In America, Jim Sheridan's somewhat-autobiographical drama about Irish immigrants in New York, continues to draw the applause of religious press critics.

Movieguide's critic calls it "a sentimental, uplifting, funny, dramatic, sad, and winsome movie that celebrates America, family life, and the indomitable spirit of Irish immigrants with some content that make it a movie for mature audiences."

Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) calls it "very personal, very intimate, and quite magnificent. While the performances of the cast are uniformly excellent, we must mention again just how wonderful the two Bolger sisters are. As natural as nature can be, they carry the picture upon their tiny shoulders and lift it to us with all the innocence that their tender ages possess. Heartbreaking and heartwarming all at the same time. It is not an easy feat … though they make it look as if it were."

Darrell Manson (Hollywood Jesus) says, "The film is a well done exploration of the struggle to live through the pain of grief. It doesn't offer an easy solution. Even the emotional climax, which may seem easy, is the result of moving through grief over time to get to that point."