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Tame Canada

“My Left Foot” director tells his own story with “In America.”

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Presumably they are eager to see life gently affirmed and witness some truths we hold inevitable. No, not death and taxes, but that wise little girls know what’s best, eccentric recluses aren’t scary once you get to know them, and those who lose their faith find it in the end.

“In America,” an account of Sheridan’s own family’s experiences, does not disappoint, anchoring its good will on a last-ditch, heart-stopping, slow-motion save of the rent money, which we’ll elaborate on later. This feel-good weeper tells the story of an Irish-descended clan from Canada which immigrates to New York in the early ’80s, setting up house in a dilapidated Manhattan apartment building in a seedy area of town. They live in the “junkie building,” one character calls it, though these parents don’t seem to mind their children coming and going unsupervised, and we never see anyone indulging in anything more disreputable than a Budweiser.

“In America” is earnest and heartfelt, but it occupies the danger level of a “Touched by an Angel” episode. The family has come to America haunted by the memory of a son, Frankie, who died of a malignant brain tumor that was first discovered after he fell down the stairs. The father, Johnny (Paddy Considine), is an aspiring stage actor who’s turned his back on God. (Don’t worry, his wife finds a job at a nearby ice-cream parlor called Heaven.) Sarah (Samantha Morton, looking like she took the role soon after her bald stint as an empath in “Minority Report”) is in a permanent state of shock. Her daughters, Christy and Ariel (real-life sisters Sarah and Emma Bolger), are sensible beyond their years, though lonely and made to grow up too soon by parents preoccupied with sadness. To compensate, they befriend an eccentric African-American artist who lives downstairs.

With all the drama of their entry into the country — wary guards needling the nervous family with questions at the border — you’d think we were in store for a little menace. Especially with Sheridan at the helm. The director of “In the Name of the Father,” he recently brought the conflicts in Ireland luridly to life as executive producer of “Bloody Sunday.” The problem with “In America” is that it’s smooth sailing after the initial journey. That is, unless you count such riveting scenes as fixing up the apartment, going to the movies to beat the heat and winning back the rent money (along with a cute E.T. doll) at a street game.

Johnny and his family must also deal with job hunting, being different (poor) and having a bum — egad — ask them for change. Gasps erupt amid the audience.

Beneath its ho-hum exterior, “In America” also contains serious questions of credibility. Although it’s based on a true story, we’re never told so. The big question — why the family wants to be in America — is never asked or answered. (Sadness over Frankie’s death just doesn’t cover it. If so, why pick an apartment atop 16 flights of stairs?) But taking for granted that America is where it’s at, why do these people act like it’s such a strange and exotic land, when it’s right over the border? You’d think they were from Chechnya or Istanbul the way they gape and fawn over such puzzling American traditions as Halloween. Didn’t these kids have a television in Canada?

“In America” is dedicated to the memory of Frankie Sheridan, information provided as a touching revelation at the end of the film. Personal subjects are hard to convey. Try elevating them to too lofty a pedestal and you risk pushing the proceeds over the edge, as when Johnny and Sarah conceive another child under the dramatic blue bolts of a thunderstorm. They and their brood, besides being seemingly cut off from the real world of relatives and friends, have youth, intelligence and good looks going for them. It’s too bad that someone didn’t tell them that that’s most of what you need to make it here (and anywhere else for that matter). The tip might’ve saved them a lot of anxiety and us a very tame two hours. ** S

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