The Sullivan family comes to America for a new beginning. Sarah and Johnny with their young daughters Christy and Ariel drive across the border from Canada posing as happy tourists, but desperate to leave a personal tragedy behind in Ireland.
The family goes to New York City where they find the only apartment they can afford is in a grim and gritty, drug-infested inner-city neighborhood; and while aspiring actor Johnny endures an endless string of auditions and rejections, Sarah and the girls struggle to adapt to life In America.
Emma and Sarah Bolger, two sisters from Dublin, play the film's sisters, Ariel and Christy. Eleven-year-old Sarah - older of the two -likes the theme of not forgetting, but learning to let go of the past.
"I think what's so special about it is that the family can get through so much, with their son dying and all," she says. "I think that when they came to America they had this great big opportunity to let go . . . and I think that's so magical and it makes the film so much more special."
Director Jim Sheridan, who earned Oscar nominations for the dramas My Left Foot and In The Name Of The Father, co-wrote the script along with his now-grown daughters, Naomi and Kirsten Sheridan. It was inspired by their own experience as emigrants from Ireland and many of the incidents in the film actually happened to them; but Jim Sheridan says he did not want the actors - especially the young girls - to be intimidated by that reality.
"Because it happened, I would pretend that I had no idea of what was going on. I would ask 'what is this scene about?' They would start telling me and I would go 'is it? what do you say?' They would say what they'd say and I would go 'all right, try it and let's see what happens. Will this work?' I would kind of destroy it and they'd think 'oh my God, he doesn't have a clue ... and how do we help him to fix it?' So all the time the kids were helping me in directing the film and doing everything. In their minds they were completely in charge," he explains.
Thanks to the guileless kids, the family finds a friend and a kindred spirit in Mateo, a reclusive neighbor played by Benin-born Djimon Hounsou.
"I have a great affinity for this story," he says. "I am sort of the best example of the American dream: coming from West Africa, raised in Europe and coming here to pursue a dream of acting. You leave family members, relatives and friends, dear friends, come to a country which has a culture very different from your own and you have to rebuild completely from scratch ... build a family in a way, whether it's having kids with a beautiful wife or your family could be your friends."
Samantha Morton plays Sarah, the mother of the family; and the English-born actress found the experiences of making and watching In America filled with genuine emotion.
"It is life affirming. I challenge anyone to see this film and not think about the people they love or think about what's the most important thing in their life," she says. "It's not the car or what house you live in or how much money you earn or how thin you are. You don't look at things in yourself that you hate; you don't look at the things that you'd like to change. You look at your life and think about what you've got ... and it's brilliant, I think."
In America co-stars Paddy Considine as Johnny and the cinematographer is Irish-born Declan Quinn.