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Do You Believe in Magic? In America Twenty Years On

Do you believe in magic? It’s harder as we grow older, when test results or finances aren’t great, or life serves up some other mess to handle. But writer-director Jim Sheridan’s “In America,” which one critic called “a movie laced with magic and made with palpable affection,” shows how magic and hope can appear when we need them, in the most unexpected ways.

Available on streaming, it enjoyed a wide release in American theaters twenty years ago after earlier showings at film festivals and in other countries. On days when empathy seems in short supply, it’s a heartfelt reminder of how we’re more alike than we realize, how kindness and compassion create their own magic.

Sheridan (“My Left Foot,” “In the Name of the Father,” “The Boxer”) has a deft touch for the delicacy of relationships, but for “In America,” he asked his daughters, Naomi Sheridan and Kirsten Sheridan, to share memories of when their family settled in New York City. The Oscar-nominated screenplay follows the fictional Sullivan family as they emigrate illegally from Ireland, landing in the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood in a walk-up with a rough mix of tenants. It’s more a series of vignettes than a plot, befitting living there.

Johnny (Paddy Considine), his wife, Sarah (Oscar nominee Samantha Morton), and their young daughters lie their way through the Canadian border for a fresh start, as the Sheridans did. An actor, Johnny can’t feel anything anymore, numb with grief over losing their young son, Frankie, to a brain tumor. (Sheridan as a child lost his ten-year-old brother the same way and dedicated this film to him.)

Ten-year-old Christy (Sarah Bolger)—Sheridan’s avatar, with a camcorder—frames the story around hopes and wishes, narrating how Frankie told her she has three wishes. She and Ariel (Sarah Bolger’s sister, Emma Bolger) view relocating as an adventure, a feeling the film captures by framing the story largely from the girls’ point of view.

“We heard Manhattan before we ever saw it. A thousand strange voices coming from everywhere,” Christy narrates. Going through a tunnel under the river knocks out the radio in the family’s station wagon, and the car is quiet, like they’ve lost contact with everything except the hum of the road and the wash of headlights on the tile walls.

When they emerge in midtown Manhattan, “it was like we were on another planet,” Christy says. Johnny adjusts the radio, stopping on The Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Do You Believe in Magic?” As their car tools through Times Square, Christy sets down her camera to jockey with Ariel at the back window, looking at the billboards and sounds, the neon lights and colors splashing across the girls’ faces. (In a bit of filmmaking magic, Sheridan, cinematographer Declan Quinn, and editor Naomi Geraghty married footage canted upward as if from the girls’ height with studio close-ups of the girls peering from the car.)

At an apartment in Hell’s Kitchen, Christy and Ariel run through the open space, marveling at the tub in the center of the room and the pigeons flapping through a backlit hole in the skylight. Johnny and Sarah embrace, grateful they’ve made it this far. It’s a bit of a hole, he apologizes against her cheek, and wonders how they’ll pay for it.

Sheridan blocks the two in the foreground of a medium shot, murmuring their worries away from the girls. It’ll be OK once we do it up, Sarah reassures him, and says they’ll sell the car.

The film plays out over the rest of the year, with Christy contemplating her remaining wishes and Ariel noting other magical things, like the lemon drops she says help her mom’s breathing when the summer humidity becomes unbearable before the family escapes to the movies to see “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial,” another story about a stranger who finds a friend and becomes one when needed most.

While the film depicts “the way poverty humiliates those who have always prided themselves on being able to cope,” it’s ultimately a gentle story with hope at its core, “a sense of life beyond pain,” as producer Arthur Lappin said on a DVD feature. Its most precious magic is in its relationships, its tender gestures and tiny moments. Consider the way Sarah’s touches Johnny’s wrist after an odyssey schlepping home an air conditioner comes to naught—a neighbor fanning herself and an infant in the stairwell fans Johnny too as he rests on the railing—or how Johnny gazes at Sarah after a round of hide-and-seek with the girls.

“You didn’t find me,” Sarah says, watching him with Ariel.

“There’s nowhere you can hide that I won’t find you,” he says over the top of their daughter’s head, and the film cuts to Christy for moment, smiling at their playfulness.

Magic, too, blooms in the Sullivans’ friendship with Mateo (Djimon Hounsou), a West African neighbor with “Keep Away” painted on his door. Mateo has the hallmarks of a trope; he’s a dying artist. But Hounsou’s Oscar-nominated performance transcends this, showing him not as mawkish—or as a Black “savior” for this white family—but as a kindred spirit to the Sullivans, lonely souls who help each other.

Mateo appears in intercuts and brief shots for the first half of the film, slashing a canvas, developing photos, or overhearing the girls cavort in the stairwell. He fully meets the Sullivans during a sequence on Halloween that starts when Christy, with leaves in her hair as “autumn,” and Ariel, dressed as an angel, bang on his door, despite his yells.

He flings it open, angry, then softens upon seeing the girls in their homemade costumes. “You came all the way from Ireland to trick-or-treat?” he teases at their lilting accents, then invites them inside, leaving his door open.

Mateo peers into the hallway for a few seconds, as if sensing something before noticing Sarah, now pregnant again, on the stairs. They size up each other as neighbors do when they decide you’re all right, even if they don’t know all your business. Johnny, more cautious, eavesdrops from the hallway.

Ariel says Mateo’s painting of their building looks like a haunted house. “This house is haunted, but it’s not scary,” he says. “It’s a magic house.”

“Frankie believed in magic,” Christy says, then explains his illness and death so matter-of-factly that Mateo weeps.

To change the subject, he scoops up Ariel to search for a treat. His refrigerator is full of medicine, but he has a jar full of change, about three dollars’ worth. Ariel shakes it, liking the sound. It’s hers.

Christy protests, but Mateo insists. “When luck comes knocking on your door, you can’t turn it away,” he says.

That night, Sarah invites him to dinner. She serves colcannon, where Mateo is surprised to bite down on a coin and a ring. Christy and Ariel applaud. “You’re winning everything!” Ariel says.

Mateo says the baby will bring its own luck, but once complications arise, Johnny confronts him about this, grappling with his own helplessness. He lashes out, accuses Mateo of having designs on his wife.

Mateo does love Sarah, but he loves all of them. “I’m even in love with your anger,” he says, his voice building to a bellow, tears building with every word. “I’m in love with anything that lives.”

For all the threads of death and grief in this film, I find it reassuring. A cleansing cry. Sheridan has called it a “love poem” to his family, the city, and that time in their lives, and it reminds me of my time there in my twenties, when I lived in Brooklyn. (I looked at an apartment in Hell’s Kitchen, with a window overlooking a shaft between buildings and a hole in the door where the deadbolt should have been.) My railroad-style apartment had wood floors, a white tin roof, and a nearby movie theater and Italian bakeries with walk-up windows for ices in the summertime. It also had a bathroom the size of an easy chair and a view of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. Once I moved to Florida, I had to play traffic noise to fall asleep.

I’ve collected books and pictures of the city since then, but like Christy, I prefer the pictures in my head. Ginger ice cream from Peter’s on Atlantic Avenue. Talking with a friend on the F train steps for hours. Free movies in Bryant Park behind the library. Walking through Central Park in the dusk of summer. Gerbera daisies at the bodega in the spring. The woman at the vintage shop watching “Moonstruck” on a tiny TV and saying, “This is everybody’s family, this movie.” The man walking home who pointed out a comet for me in the night sky. Climbing the fire escape to the roof to watch Fourth of July fireworks and seeing three pockets of them. Standing on the Brooklyn Bridge boardwalk above the East River, feeling the traffic hum beneath my feet.

Not every corner of New York is tinged with magic, though the concrete sometimes glitters. Not every corner of life has magic, either, but like that knock on the door, it’s there if you listen. Like how the dispatcher for the cab Johnny drives chats with Christy and Ariel over the radio while their dad has an audition. How the woman at the ice cream parlor where Sarah works watches the girls so Johnny and Sarah can have time alone. How friends referred me to jobs when I’d lost mine and did our laundry when our son was in the hospital. How people at the cancer center chat about HGTV and offer saltines and applaud when you ring the bell once chemo is done. How bird lovers on social media now mourn the death of Flaco, the magnificent owl sprung from the Central Park Zoo who enchanted them with his flights around town and hoots from above. How we pitch in when someone needs us, whether they say it or not, and sally forth, waving to those we love as we imagine them pedaling across the moon.

Before calling the girls to wave to their loved ones, Johnny fears Frankie’s death has wrecked his spirit. So, Sarah tells him to pretend. “Sometimes I think our entire lives are make-believe,” she says. “Make believe you’re happy, Johnny. Please. For the kids.”

That’s the sublime thing about magic. Sometimes what you pretend to believe becomes real.

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