Though ostensibly set in New York City in the early to mid-'80s, when E.T. was a running phenomenon and the looming AIDS crisis still rarely spoke its name, Jim Sheridan's autobiographical drama In America lacks period flavor. Shots of a revamped Times Square and up-to-the-minute billboards may not entirely spoil the illusion (after all, E.T. was re-released in 2002), but the film's neo-Dickensian apartment setting, with its studio-backlot artificiality, does the trick. Some foreign-born directors have illuminated American life in ways that homegrown filmmakers could never conceive, but Sheridan, the Irish writer-director who was so sure-handed with My Left Foot and In The Name Of The Father, seems hopelessly out of his element here. But while In America doesn't convince as an immigrants-in-the-U.S. story, it resonates powerfully as a portrait of grief and reconciliation, centering on a poor family that struggles to find its bearings after losing one of its own. Dedicated to Sheridan's brother Frankie, who died of a brain tumor at age 10, In America comes to life during the odd moments when sadness sneaks up on the characters unexpectedly, triggered by a flood of memories beyond their control. The sudden shifts in mood are ideal for Samantha Morton and Paddy Considine, two remarkably volatile and spontaneous performers who play stricken Irish parents with a damaged resiliency, working to exhaustion to keep their family and their marriage yoked together. Arriving in Manhattan with a beat-up station wagon as their sole asset, Morton, Considine, and their two young daughters (Sarah and Emma Bolger) take up residence in a building populated by junkies, beggars, transvestites, and freaks. As Considine's acting dreams meet the grim reality of failed auditions and few callbacks, the couple scrapes together rent money from odd jobs, with Considine working as a cab driver and Morton as a part-time ice-cream-parlor waitress. Though city life resists them at every turn, they make friends around the neighborhood, most notably Djimon Hounsou, an impassioned black artist suffering from AIDS. In a film scattered with heights of great emotional honesty, Hounsou sticks out as pure racial fantasy, appearing first as a bogeyman who screams and slashes his canvas, only to be revealed later as a sweet martyr, too sensitive for this world. (At one point, he actually likens himself to E.T.) His diminishing health ties into the family's healing process too squarely: He dies so that they may live. It's a miracle of sorts that In America ever transcends such phony trappings, but Sheridan and his actors evoke loss from unexpected beats, often in lighthearted scenes that suddenly turn on a glance or gesture. In a film where everything else seems off, their grief ebbs and flows in precise harmony.