Nov 5, 2003

In America

In America shows how powerful a small family drama can be when it is written and acted with a high level of craft. It's a film where you remember the moments. But those moments are memorable because the writers wove them into an overall structure that builds to a surprising emotional climax.

The story begins with an Irish family pretending to cross from Canada to the US for a vacation. The scene is both scary and funny, and it gives us shorthand character descriptions of each family member, especially the youngest girl, Ariel, whose personality is so cheerful and outgoing it almost gets the family into trouble.

The opening also introduces a voice-over by the oldest daughter, Christie, who is eleven. In it she refers to three wishes her deceased little brother, Frankie, gave her, one of which she must use to get the family over the border. This technique tells the audience this film will be a memory, which makes it feel more personal. The voice-over also gives the story a spine that will help tie the various moments together, and that is especially important when you don't have a strong desire line.

The storyteller technique also introduces the ghost of the story, Frankie's death, which will be the biggest and most ongoing opponent for this family that is starting over in America.

The ghost, as alums of the Great Screenwriting/Story Structure Class know, is the event from the past still haunting the hero in the present. It is one of the most important story beats in a good script. But often a strong ghost in a film is a big problem, because it literally pulls the story backward and drives the conflict too much into the mind of the hero. But the writers here avoid that mistake by keeping the ghost in the background of a number of difficulties this family faces in the present as they try to rebuild their crippled lives.

The other key to this script is the "yelling man" who lives downstairs from the family. By creating an outside character who is facing his own death, the writers give the family and the audience a character in the present who can personify what dying really means.

When the writers connect the death of this character with the loss of Frankie, the punch at the end is remarkable. Only drama, written with solid story structure, has that kind of emotional power for an audience.