We cling to our pasts, not because they were better or more innocent but because the theatrical elisions of memory give them the drama and meaning our shapeless present lacks. This is why we remember our worst crises as the times when we were most alive. Jim Sheridan, one of our livelier sentimental populists, is surely a rich and secure man by now, but he has turned what must have been one of the more trying periods of his life into an urban fairy tale so beguiling, one easily forgives both his exhaling pathos by the pound, and his mining of elderly clichés about the goodhearted addicts and drag queens who apparently cover every square foot of Hell’s Kitchen.
In America, which has both the makings — family pain, redemption, cute kids — and the marketing strategies of a huge Christmas hit, is loosely based on Sheridan’s experiences when he came with his wife and two daughters to New York from Ireland in 1981 to try his luck at becoming a theater director. His artistic travails are the funny part. The rest is the story of a loving family mourning, or in at least one case failing to mourn, the loss of its youngest member, a boy, to brain cancer. Sheridan himself lost a brother to the disease (his name, like that of the dead child in the movie, was Frankie, and the film is dedicated to him), and the loss clearly still weighs on him enough to enable a compelling feel for what it is like to be so overcome by grief that the whole world feels washed in sorrow.
Paddy Considine, a versatile young English actor whose whey face and merry eyes were last seen in 24 Hour Party People, plays Johnny, an aspiring actor who’s flunking one audition after another because his line-readings show more skill than feeling. As played by the reliably ethereal Samantha Morton, his wife, Sarah, is the more visibly devastated of the two — there’s emptiness in her blue saucer eyes, and she seems blitzed, almost sleepwalking through her days. Still, of the two of them, Sarah is the better actress — certainly she’s in better working order. She finds a job in a café called Heaven, which in another kind of movie would be heavy with irony, and puts on a show of good cheer for her young children, Christy and Ariel, who are played with remarkable poise by sisters Sarah and Emma Bolger. It’s only a matter of time before the girls are trick-or-treating round their new building, a tenement filled with kindly dope heads, and making friends with colorful-neighbor-in-chief Mateo (played by the impossibly handsome Djimon Hounsou), an African painter and nocturnal screamer with agonizing troubles of his own.
In America’s screenplay was written by Sheridan’s daughters, Naomi and Kirsten, which may be why the two little girls are achieved with such clarity and why the older daughter’s point of view becomes the emotional center of the movie. Christy is the observer — she carries a camcorder everywhere, recording the excitement of the family’s new life on the city streets. The film is not emotionally subtle, but it is beautifully shot, by cinematographer Declan Quinn, with a grainy, impressionistic eye that mimics a perpetual dance of shards of remembered experience: Johnny dragging an air conditioner down the center of a Manhattan street to cool his beloved wife in the middle of a sweltering New York summer, or losing his shirt at an amusement park to win an E.T. doll for his daughters, or hurling snowballs at his family in a blizzard that turns even Hell’s Kitchen into a winter wonderland. A feverish set piece has the girls sipping milk shakes under the watchful eye of a waitress while their parents try to drown their sorrows in desperate lovemaking and a wild-eyed Mateo slashes his paintings and starts afresh with his own blood, the source and symbol of his suffering.
If Christy is the family’s eye on New York, she’s also the keeper of its forbidden memories. Her camcorder replays images her parents would rather not look at, of little Frankie frolicking on grass, of his shaven head against the blinding white of hospital sheets. It’s Christy who faces up to what’s happened, and the movie’s turning point comes when she gives Johnny and Sarah a piece of her mind in words that could never be plausibly uttered by a child so young, yet they’re delivered with such conviction it seems churlish to quibble. Christy is the family realist, but she’s also (along with Mateo, who inevitably becomes both one of the family and its benefactor) its true believer. Whether or not you share her faith will determine whether you experience this warm movie as a parable of the random tragedies and opportunities life throws our way, or as the fulfillment of three wishes granted Christy by her departed brother. For his part, Sheridan places his bets on the healing power of magic and the transformation of bad blood into good. As pipe dreams go, this one couldn’t be timelier.
This year, for the first time that I can recall, I’ll have two animated features on my 10-best list. One is Finding Nemo, of which more when our lists issue runs. The other is a terrific first feature by the young French comic-strip creator and animator Sylvain Chomet. The Triplets of Belleville, Chomet has said, owes a debt to Disney’s golden age, but nothing could be further from Mouse House cute than this weird and wonderful tale of a clubfooted Portuguese granny, aided by three beat-up former music-hall entertainers, taking on the French mafia to save her grandson. The movie’s real antecedents, as a tiny poster of Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday mounted on a wall modestly declares, are Jacques Tati, as well as Chaplin, Keaton and other giants of silent (or in this case, almost silent) comedy.
The heroes of The Triplets of Belleville, which is set in a hovel of a 1950s apartment house, are lonely, homely castoffs who, in the dogged pursuit of survival, manage to outmaneuver human and technological powers far superior to their own. Characters are defined by how they move: The indomitable Madame Souza clumps along on her huge iron shoe; her grandson, Champion, morphs from a fat little boy into a bony, cranelike sad sack with a beaky resemblance to Adrien Brody (or maybe a fugitive from an Edward Gorey illustration), forever bent over a bicycle as his grandmother trains him for the Tour de France. When a pair of rectangular mobsters abduct the boy, Madame Souza and her faithful dog follow them across the ocean to Belleville, a looming city of tall buildings and long shadows.
The Triplets of Belleville is gorgeous, but it’s not pretty. Chomet does funny, scary and beautiful things with scale. Madame Souza, pedaling along in her homemade boat, is dwarfed both by the silhouette of the huge cargo ship that’s carrying her grandson and, once arrived in Belleville, by the three stringy-haired crones, dirt-poor but surviving joyfully on dishes made from the frogs they fish out of a nearby swamp, who take her in and join the search for Champion. Triplets riffs amusingly on stereotypes of America and France — the identity of this scary city is announced by an obese Statue of Liberty, and one of Chomet’s most hilarious creations is an obsequious waiter whose ludicrously elongated head keeps flattening into a horizontal bow. The soundtrack, with its ambient noise, its grunts and sighs that pass for human communication, its bits of Django Reinhardt and music made out of vacuum cleaners and bicycle spokes, is strangely moving. And while, like most animated films, The Triplets of Belleville was made by many people, this divinely eccentric movie feels as if it came straight to the screen from one man’s wild and wantonly free imagination.
IN AMERICA | Directed by JIM SHERIDAN | Written by SHERIDAN, NAOMI SHERIDAN and KIRSTEN SHERIDAN | Produced by SHERIDAN and ARTHUR LAPPIN | Released by Fox Searchlight Pictures | Citywide
THE TRIPLETS OF BELLEVILLE | Written and directed by SYLVAIN CHOMET | Produced by DIDIER BRUNNER and PAUL CADIEUX Released by Sony Pictures Classics | At Laemmle’s Royal; Laemmle’s Town Center 5, Encino; Landmark’s Rialto, South Pasadena