On one level, In America is a classic immigrant saga. With no intention of returning home to the Emerald Isle, the Sullivans cross the border from Canada pretending to be tourists. But they're as much searching for opportunity as fleeing a sorrowful past: the accidental death of a young son a year earlier. When their battered station wagon reaches Manhattan, the soundtrack swells with the strains of the old Lovin' Spoonful anthem, "Do You Believe in Magic?" The protagonists have arrived in a land of enchantment that offers either a place to hide or a place to heal.
Director Jim Sheridan, the talent behind My Left Foot and In the Name of the Father, wrote the current semi-autobiographical screenplay with his two grown daughters. Slated to open around Christmas at The Roxy in Burlington and the Savoy in Montpelier, In America seems to be a shoo-in for award nominations. It's the kind of personal tale about struggling newcomers that hints at what has made this country great.
When the characters watch The Grapes of Wrath on television, Sheridan surely wants us to recall the enduring power of Ma Joad's famous pronouncement: "Can't wipe us out. Can't lick us. We'll go on forever, Pa, because we're the people." Rooted in the Oklahoma Dust Bowl during the Great Depres-sion, the Joads become economic migrants in California. Five decades later, in the early 1980s, the Sullivans are yet another hardscrabble family landing in the Big Apple.
Numbed by grief, Johnny (Paddy Considine) battles with guilt and blame. Samantha Morton, still sporting her Minority Report buzz-cut, portrays the equally devastated mother, Sarah. They try to remain stable for the sake of their two little girls. Christy and Ariel (real-life sisters Sarah and Emma Bolger) are ebullient children, about 10 and 7 respectively, burdened with saving the household from utter despair.
And what a household it is. The Sullivans move into a squalid Hell's Kitchen neighborhood populated by junkies and transvestite hookers. The fixer-upper apartment is so open to the elements that a flock of pigeons has taken up residence there. Delighted, the kids ask if they can keep the birds.
As seen through their eyes, the relocation is an adventure, but not one without peril. ET, which they enjoy in a mercifully air-conditioned theater during a summer heat wave, provides an additional cultural touchstone. The spunky extraterrestrial is a fellow alien.
Christy narrates Sheridan's film and documents the experiences of the resourceful Sullivans with an omni-
present video camera -- an anachronism, considering the technology was not prevalent 20 years ago. She also carefully uses the three wishes supposedly granted her by Frankie, the brother who has gone to heaven.
Johnny, an actor, drives a cab while auditioning unsuccessfully for off-Broadway plays. Sarah works at an ice-cream parlor. The girls attend Catholic school, where they are the only students with homemade costumes for Halloween.
While trick-or-treating in their tenement, Ariel and Christy knock on a door marked "Keep Away." Inside is an angry, tormented African artist named Mateo (Djimon Hounsou), suffering from what appears to be AIDS before it was even called that.
This is where the movie begins to stumble, as the guileless Irish colleens essentially charm the mad Nigerian out of his funk. Yet, apart from a few such naïve leaps of faith, In America can charm an audience by revealing the potential tender mercies among some awfully tired, poor, huddled masses.
The Station Agent, a Sundance Film Festival award-winner now at The Roxy, stars a 1991 Bennington College grad. Peter Dinklage, a 34-year-old who also has a minor role in Elf, recently told The New York Times: "It was a debauched, crazy school. I loved it. Three girls to every guy -- it was very free." When not fending off females, the handsome 4-foot-5 thespian from New Jersey was cast in dramas by Anton Chekhov, Maxim Gorky and John Guare.
Etre et Avoir (To Be and to Have), the popular French documentary that was a smash at October's Vermont International Film Festival, focuses on a year in the life of a tiny rural elementary school. Sadly, the gentle teacher at the heart of the story -- Georges Lopez -- is now suing producers for a share of the profits. According to The Guardian newspaper in London, his lawyers are arguing that the classroom lessons observed on screen constitute "an original intellectual creation and should have the status of a book adapted for the movies."