Relative newcomer Paddy Considine is shockingly good as the patriarch struggling to deal with an impoverished life in modern Manhattan while still mourning the death of his child. The need to remain strong-faced for his wife and remaining two daughters adds an extra dimension to this difficult part, and Considine is up to the task.
The film is based on Sheridan's own experiences living in New York during the '80s, and while not completely autobiographical, the parallels are undeniable. Sheridan's brother, Frankie, (also the name of the deceased child in the film) died of a brain tumor, which factors into his script. While Sheridan came to America to forge a career as a stage director, the character played by Considine struggles to become an actor.
When Johnny and Sarah (Considine and Samantha Morton) cross the Canadian border with their daughters Christy and Ariel (real-life sisters Sarah and Emma Bolger), they are searching for a better life after the death of their young son. They have to settle for an upstairs apartment in a drug den in deep Manhattan, sans air conditioning during a typically sweltering NYC summer. Johnny goes to auditions and impresses a few, but he is constantly rejected because he is missing something in his approach.
Johnny's daughters are eternal optimists, seeing their pigeon-filled apartment as a sort of playground, and befriending Mateo, the reclusive and grouchy artist who lives downstairs (Djimon Hounsou, getting a role to match his talents). While Johnny openly mourns the loss of his child, wife Sarah is more restrained, almost in denial.
This all has the makings of bombastic melodrama, but Sheridan writes such wonderful dialogue that the scenarios feel real instead of contrived. One can imagine the harrowing, emotionally wrenching meetings Considine and Sheridan must've had while plotting an approach to the material. Considine seems very much like he is channeling another man's anguish and pain.
The subplot concerning Mateo's declining health is gracefully handled by Hounsou, who makes a drastic transformation from angry artist painting with his own blood to a bedridden man who finds peace with death. Sheridan's vision depicts the two daughters as angels to Mateo, and their kinship is touching. A scene where a seemingly jealous Johnny squares off with Mateo regarding his wife and daughters is devastating.
Morton, so good in last year's Morvern Caller and Minority Report, creates a most interesting character in Sarah. On the surface, she is a rock, demanding that her husband put on his best happy face for their daughters, to play with them despite his crippling grief. Beneath the surface, she is just as troubled as Johnny, one more trauma away from a possible breakdown. Morton walks this line with major poise.
As the daughters, Sarah and Emma Bolger bring their natural chemistry to the screen in what are perhaps the best child performances of the year. Both of the sisters are making their major motion picture debuts here, and what they achieve is remarkable. It's as if they were born to act.
Sheridan somehow manages to realistically capture the decay of lower-tier Manhattan life while giving his movie a fantastical, fairy tale feel. This is one of the better looking movies of the year, an amazing feat considering that most of it takes place within an apartment building that should be condemned. In America stands as one of the year's most beautiful films, a superb example of an artist taking real pain and turning it into something hopeful and sublime.