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‘In America’ earns its tears

Samantha Morton stars in this story of immigrants

It’s not precisely a Christmas movie, but there’s more honest sentiment in Jim Sheridan’s “In America” than you’ll find in such current pretenders to the instant-Christmas-classic throne as “Elf” and “Love Actually.”

Halloween actually plays the largest seasonal role here, as two trick-or-treaters, Christy (Sarah Bolger) and Ariel (played by real-life sibling Emma Bolger), pound the door of the Hell’s Kitchen apartment of a menacing artist, Mateo (Djimon Hounsou from “Amistad”). Oblivious to the fact that it’s Oct. 31, he invites them in, tries to locate some sweets and turns out to be a vulnerable pussycat in the process. The three become fast friends.

New to New York, the girls are Irish immigrants who, like their parents, Sarah (Samantha Morton) and Johnny (Paddy Considine), pretend to be vacationing while settling in for an indefinite period. The family is recovering from the death of a young son, Frankie, who is never seen but always present. (The semi-autobiographical script is partly based on the premature death of Sheridan’s brother, also named Frankie.)

Dad’s an actor who almost gets a stage role (the director likes his accent but not his acting), then ends up driving cabs at odd hours. Mom takes hold of what purse strings there are, occasionally letting Dad play with their money. When she gets pregnant again, their doctor advises termination because the baby threatens the mother’s life; she insists on going through with the pregnancy.

If you think you know what happens next, be prepared to be surprised. What’s most heartening about “In America” is its consistent and always welcome unpredictability. You never know where this family is headed next, and sometimes the sense of impending disaster can become almost unbearable.

Perhaps the most remarkable episode involves the family’s escape from their sweltering apartment, as they catch an air-conditioned screening of “E.T.” Next, they visit a fairground booth where Johnny gambles everything he has, then bets the rent money that Sarah is holding in her purse, on a hunch that he can win an “E.T.” doll for the kids.

The sequence, which makes use of time-stretching slow-motion effects, is excruciatingly suspenseful. What’s at stake is merely everything: Dad’s pride, his wife’s trust, his daughters’ faith in him. In no time, this simple, rather stupid bet becomes a turning point in all their lives.

This episode is also not quite like anything else Sheridan has written or directed before. The creator of “My Left Foot” and “In the Name of the Father” has abandoned the documentary-like realism of those films for a more magical, improvisational approach that makes witty use of music by Culture Club, The Lovin’ Spoonful and other pop groups.

The technique turns out to be exactly right for this story, which might easily have drowned in treacly cliches about family bonds. It also allows the actors a sense of freedom that becomes contagious. By film’s end, you believe that these separate performers truly do add up to a family.

John Hartl is the film critic for MSNBC.com.