With its careful structure, In America boldly guards itself against any criticism of its blend of hard-nosed realism and fancy-flighted whimsy.

One part a harsh look at the hard-to-get-by life of American immigrants and one part a mythic, drama, it’s the sort of film that easily could be unbearable hokum. But it’s told from the point-of-view of a child, making brilliant its wholly understated and delightful case of unreliable narration.

After all, who doesn’t remember important childhood events as more grandiose than they were? In our minds, the thunder and lightning of a noteworthy rainstorm may have had supernatural proportions. And the quirks of intriguing neighbors always were more far-fetched in our heads.

The mind is particularly overwhelmed for these Irish immigrant girls, new to the melting-pot population, weather patterns and ever-present glitz of New York. Co-writer and director Jim Sheridan foregoes schmaltz and emphasizes the film’s spirit. And his semi-autobiographical tale is a reflection of how its narrator copes with the death of her brother and experiences the possibilities of a foreign land.

The story begins at the Canadian border. Johnny (Paddy Considine) and Sarah (Samantha Morton) are trying to cross into America with their young daughters Christy and Ariel (Sarah and Emma Bolger).

Arriving in New York City, they move into the only apartment they can afford — a big but decayed flat in a building peopled by drug addicts, panhandlers and tortured artists. The family is not completely broke, but they don’t have much. A former teacher, Sarah ends up working at an ice cream parlor while Johnny feebly attempts to carve out a living as an actor.

As they discover the highs and lows of American life, they each mourn the loss of Frankie, a largely unseen brother and son who haunts their memories like a ghost. Soon after Sarah again becomes pregnant, the family meets Mateo (Djimon Hounsou), a downstairs neighbor who becomes an unlikely family friend. His presence is the spark that brings the family together in unlikely, moving ways.

Every vignette of In America is a masterpiece, unfolding like a beautifully told short story and moving forward with magical, storytelling precision. And its occasional capture on Christy’s video camera is a threading device to make their story universal. The screenplay, which Sheridan co-wrote with sister Kirsten and daughter Naomi, resonates truthfully with every emotion we’d want from a film, often evoked through Considine’s outstanding lead performance.

There is laugh-out-loud humor in Johnny’s damn-the-torpedoes quest for an air conditioner, sexy and playful flirtation in his seduction of Sarah, sadness in his inability to grieve properly for Frankie and completely engrossing suspense as he tries to win a stuffed E.T. at a carnival game.

Although Considine is the stand-out, the rest of the cast is uniformly brilliant. Morton’s quietly fierce performance is an anchor for the family and the film. Hounsou shows dynamic dramatic muscle to match his imposing physique. And the Bolger sisters deliver two of the most indelible child performances ever seen on film. The sing-song lilt of their voices is an instantly charming sound that will linger in your brain.

But amid all this happiness, there is the death of Frankie, lingering more like a blank sadness than an inspiration to move on. Sheridan’s scripted resolution of this conflict is brilliant for each character. It culminates in one of the best scenes of the year, when Johnny’s remembrance of what it’s like to be a child sets him free from his self-imposed emotional sterilization.

In America is a phenomenal film, never manipulative in its reminder of the wonderment of memory and perseverance to evoke its laughter, heart and tears. It’s a must-see and one of 2003’s best films.