In pop culture, the immigrant experience is often conceived as the American dream corrupted. From The Godfather: Part II (1974) to The Immigrant (2013), when it comes to immigrants, Hollywood has long been interested in the workings of the underworld—the glamour and gore of the mafia, the plight of the prostitute, the ties that bind those of a common ancestry. But Brooklyn, based on Colm Toibin’s 2009 novel of the same name, offers a rare glimpse of a dream fulfilled: a young, single woman crossing an ocean to find employment and respectability in America.  

Without professional or romantic prospects in 1950s Ireland, young Eilis Lacey (Saoirse Ronan), leaves for New York with help from a local priest who has already made the transatlantic journey. She moves into a boardinghouse filled with other Irish girls, run by an imperious, god-fearing Mrs. Kehoe (a scene-stealing Julie Walters, better known to American audiences as Mrs. Weasley), works at a chic department store, and takes bookkeeping classes at night. Despite her good fortune, Eilis wants nothing more than to go home—until she meets a young Italian-American plumber, Tony (Emory Cohen). The two fall madly in love, and Tony introduces Eilis to some pillars of American life: spaghetti and meatballs, Coney Island weekends, and the dream of a suburban home on an undeveloped Long Island. The movie nods at some interesting details of the social fabric of ’50s America, but for the most part it stays focused in Eilis’s transformation from an Irish girl in America to an Irish-American.

But as she soon finds out, she can’t become American and stay entirely Irish. A family tragedy forces Eilis to go home, and unexpectedly, all of the pieces of her life fall into place. Armed with her American degree, she’s offered a bookkeeping job, and is soon set up with the most eligible bachelor in town, Jim (Domhnall Gleeson). Faced with the possibility of an equally lovely life in Ireland, Eilis must make an existential choice between old world and new. For all its romanticism, Brooklyn doesn’t sugarcoat the consequences of this choice: Her mother tells her point blank that if Eilis leaves, she will be left to grow old entirely on her own. Leaving Ireland would mean leaving a part of herself behind. There’s no way for Eilis to have it both ways.

Whether it’s a declaration of love or a job offer, Eilis answers all propositions with a cool, collected “thank you.” It’s a testament to actress Saoirse Ronan, already an Oscar-nominated veteran at 21, that this placid, opaque exterior suggests a complex inner life rather than total passivity. Over the course of the film, Eilis grows from a timid young wallflower to a confident, fashionable, and independent woman secure in both her professional abilities and physical appearance. Brooklyn appeals as a love triangle, with charming, old-timey romances befitting the era it depicts, but it’s more powerful as a story of one young woman’s identity. Her choice between the two men is less about the men themselves than about what she wants her life to be.

Screenwriter Nick Hornby, once a novelist of neurotic young men, delivers yet another smart film adaptation of young women coming of age to follow An Education (2009), for which he earned an Oscar nomination. Through all of Eilis’s turmoil, he gives her space, providing Ronan the silence to convey the character’s emotions through her craft rather than words. Ronan delivers, expressing Eilis’s internal conflict through the slow blink of the eyes and a quiver of the lip.

The movie takes its time to reach the love story at its center, lavishing time on the journey across the Atlantic, the dim terror of the Ellis Island processing line, the weeks of heartbreak waiting for a letter from home. But within a few lines, Hornby brings to life the attraction between Ronan and Cohen, the appeal of this Italian boy rough around the edges. As his Irish counterpart, Gleeson makes the best of thinner material, communicating in very few lines all he—and Ireland—have to offer Eilis. If Brooklyn has a flaw, it’s that the writing is a little sparse at the very end, when Eilis’s decision-making process could be teased out more.

All this drama might make Brooklyn sound like a glorified Nicholas Sparks movie. It would certainly appeal to fans of those films, but the love story is subsumed in greater questions of loss and identity, of saying goodbye to pieces of ourselves gone by, of recognizing that we can’t be both here and there. Moving from Ireland to Brooklyn, like moving anywhere, is to leave someplace—and someone—behind. “Home is home,” Tony says to Eilis. The question, for her, is where that home is.