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The dead child is this fall’s macabre cinematic essential, accessorizing what are meant to be soulful characterizations by Nicole Kidman, her pal Naomi Watts, and Sean Penn—the last in Mystic River and now again in 21 Grams with Watts. As The Human Stain’s tormented survivor, the game but miscast Kidman skates the closest to farce; no matter how vigorously she laments, her dead kids seem merely a plot convenience. Watts and Penn fare better, although the narrative function of their lost children proves either excessively schematic (in 21 Grams) or overly symbolic (in Mystic River).

Amid all this brooding, the most affecting of the season’s dead-child movies is the semiautobiographical and half-comic In America. It counsels leaving grief behind, which is sage advice for viewers and screenwriters alike. Scripted by director Jim Sheridan and his two oldest daughters, Naomi and Kirsten Sheridan, In America is in part the story of their family’s tenure in Hell’s Kitchen. Johnny Sullivan (Paddy Considine) is an actor who transplants his wife, Sarah (Samantha Morton), and their young daughters, Christy and Ariel (real-life sisters Sarah and Emma Bolger), from Dublin to New York. At the U.S.-Canadian border, Johnny tells the immigration agents that he has three kids, but he’s quickly corrected. Frankie, who had a brain tumor, recently died. It’s a loss that seems to most oppress the quiet, thoughtful Christy, the film’s sometime narrator. Only gradually do her parents also show the extent of their anguish.

Settled into a crummy apartment building, the Sullivans find New York uncomfortable and delightful, ominous and welcoming. (Although it’s the ’80s, the irrepressible “Do You Believe in Magic?” remains the city’s theme.) Sarah, a teacher at home in Ireland, has to take a job in an ice cream parlor. When not going fruitlessly to auditions, Johnny drives a cab. As the seasons change, the girls learn first about humidity and then about Halloween. While trick-or-treating, they alter the course of family history by daring to knock on the door of “the man who screams.” He turns out to be a despairing but otherwise hospitable painter, Mateo (Amistad’s Djimon Hounsou). This new friend proves a crucial ally when Sarah’s latest pregnancy goes wrong, threatening the life of both mother and unborn child.

Early in the film, after his experiments in air conditioning fail spectacularly, Johnny takes the family to the movies, where the temperature is cool and E.T. is playing. That incident may very well be true to life, but it’s also an acknowledgment of Sheridan’s intentions: Unapologetically sentimental, In America is a kids’-eye view of life and death that very nearly out-Spielbergs Spielberg, using the freshness of children’s viewpoints and the intensity of the parent-child bond to banish irony and tap into primal emotion.

In other words, In America is very sweet, even when it’s sad. Unlike most Spielberg flicks, however, it’s never mechanical. The juxtaposition of extreme and everyday events, and of joy and sorrow, feels entirely natural—albeit compressed for dramatic purposes. If Mateo’s role ultimately seems a little too convenient, most of the other characters are credible. Even solemn, steadfastly responsible Christy, who has a climactic speech that’s a little much, is mostly believable. Considine and Morton, playing less edgy roles than usual, generously cede the spotlight to the Bolgers, who are spirited and unaffected.

Shot by Declan Quinn, whose credits include Leaving Las Vegas, the movie has an intimacy that suits its familial themes and a visual spontaneity that befits its rapid mood swings. Intercutting film and video and using mostly short scenes, Sheridan creates an aptly anecdotal feel. The story is more structured than it seems at first, especially in its arrangement of birth and death events, but it feels like a privileged memory, not an uplifting lesson in three acts.

In fact, the director does have a message in mind, decrying the Irish “death culture” reflected in such phenomena as the 10 Irish nationalists who starved themselves to death in a British prison in 1981—an event that was the subject of Some Mother’s Son, a film he co-scripted. That theme is played softly, however. If In America tells the bereaved to get on with their lives, it does so mostly by observing the many ways, both remarkable and mundane, in which life goes on.

Mexican DJ-turned-director Alejandro González Iñárritu’s first feature, Amores Perros, was a flashy romp, impossible to consider gravely even though it was soaked in blood, both human and canine. For 21 Grams, the director enlisted many of the same collaborators, notably scripter Guillermo Arriaga, and the same central device: three lives jolted together by a car crash. In the process of switching from Spanish to English, however, Iñárritu has also changed his tone. His new film doesn’t include dogfights or hit men—in fact, if it weren’t spectacularly fragmented, 21 Grams would resemble a conventional domestic-downer melodrama.

Things sure don’t begin conventionally, however. From an opening shot of Paul (Penn) and Cristina (Watts) in bed together, the movie goes in a half-dozen directions almost simultaneously. Cristina is in an encounter group, dealing with an unspecified loss. Born-again ex-con Jack (Benicio Del Toro) tries to get a surly teen to accept Jesus. Paul lies in a hospital bed, awaiting a transplantable heart that may not arrive in time. And Mary (Charlotte Gainsbourg) visits a gynecologist, who asks if she’s ever had an abortion.

Except for Jack, whose life is about to be devastated, these people are bereft. Cristina lost her husband and two young daughters to a hit-and-run driver. Paul is mourning the life he expects soon to depart, with a few regrets on the side for his failed marriage. Mary, his wife, has recently returned to Paul and desperately wants to get pregnant before he dies. But of course she did have an abortion, which left an obstruction that must be removed before she can have a child. (Add the aborted one to the thematic death toll and hang on for a procreative punch line.)

So how do Paul and Cristina end up in bed? That’s not such a hard question to answer, but 21 Grams takes its time in explaining it—and everything else. Iñárritu’s method isn’t anything so simple as telling the story backward. The three main stories wander in and out of sync, sliding among past, present, and future in cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto’s tightly framed handheld shots. When introduced, Cristina, Paul, and Jack are in different narrative time zones in the same unidentified city, but their lives gradually begin to align. That’s not such a good thing. The film, which is roughly Amores Perros-meets-Bounce, gets less interesting as it becomes more coherent. The final Penn voice-over—meditating on the notion that the human body loses 21 grams of weight at the moment of death—is a sententious letdown that reveals how little substance lurks beneath the film’s prismatic structure (provided by editor Stephen Mirrione, an Oscar winner for Traffic).

Watts and Penn don’t lose control even as their one- or two-note characters do: Shattered Cristina embraces booze, coke, and sex, and Paul takes turns as a bitter, dying man and a reborn one obsessed with the vanished life that’s made his second coming possible. Del Toro makes bigger gestures as the film’s most problematic character, a swaggering would-be martyr. Pursuing the teachings of Pentecostal Christianity to their logical absurdity, he comes to believe that Jesus wanted him to cause the film’s central cataclysm.

Jack is looking for God in the wrong place, of course: With this sort of arty puzzler, the only divine intervention takes place in the editing room. CP