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I Am Sam

Need to rinse out your tear ducts? Then don't miss this story of a mentally challenged man and his effort to raise--and later to keep--his 7-year-old daughter.


Mentally challenged Sam Dawson (Sean Penn), who works at Starbucks and lives in a tiny apartment in Los Angeles, is shocked to find himself the single father of a newborn baby girl, but he takes his responsibility in stride. He names the baby Lucy Diamond Dawson in honor of The Beatles and manages--with the help of his reclusive next-door neighbor Annie (Dianne Wiest) and his close group of mentally challenged friends--to incorporate his daughter into a weekly routine that includes video night on Thursdays, IHOP on Wednesdays and frequent readings of Dr. Seuss' Green Eggs and Ham (hence the movie's title). Lucy (Dakota Fanning) grows into a charming little girl, largely because Sam treats her with the respect of an equal; unfortunately, the state thinks that's because he is her equal--Sam has the mental capacity of a 7-year-old, too. When her classmates begin to tease her about her father, Lucy starts to rebel against him, and eventually a surprise birthday party turns so ugly that a social worker (Loretta Devine) who witnesses the scene has Lucy placed with a foster mother (Laura Dern). Enter Rita Harrison (Michelle Pfeiffer), the ambitious lawyer Sam chooses out of the Yellow Pages to help him get his daughter back. Rita takes Sam's case pro bono for completely selfish reasons, but as Rita gets to know Sam and Lucy, she learns from their idyllic relationship and makes great strides in improving her relationship with her own son, and with herself.


Though the role is no big stretch for her, Pfeiffer is great as the lawyer who spends too much time trying to make as much money as she can to support a shallow, cold, materialistic lifestyle that's brightened only by the marshmallows and jelly beans she consumes in massive quantities. But Penn is the big star of this film and Pfeiffer, despite playing the only character who changes in any significant way, is just there to show how much we could all learn from Sam and Lucy if only we'd listen. Penn's been touted for an Oscar nom for his performance as Sam, which was very, very good, though it's bound to draw comparisons with Dustin Hoffman's Rain Man, and Penn may suffer from them. Though Pfeiffer and Penn share several well-executed scenes, the onscreen combination of Penn and Fanning is marvelous. The kid is definitely one to watch. Kudos also to the actors playing Sam's close friends: Ifty (Doug Hutchison), whose ability to spout movie trivia is second to none; Robert (Stanley DeSantis), the paranoid and protective worrywart; Brad (Brad Allen Silverman), the ladies man; and Joe (Joseph Rosenberg), the quiet one. (The latter two actors have disabilities in real life.) Dern is fine as the foster mother, though the part is so small given its ultimate impact on the story that it seems possible several of her scenes were cut.


I Am Sam's carefully crafted script, penned by director Jessie Nelson and Kristine Johnson, is the result of a great deal of research--the writers and the cast spent significant time at L.A. Goal, an organization for adults with developmental disabilities--and it shows. In her directorial role, Nelson paints I Am Sam in the bright colors of a 7-year-old's world, but the movie's message is black and white: raising children is a challenge for everyone, and no one really knows how to do it until they're forced to learn the hard way. Some, like Sam, may have a knack; others, like Rita, may have to change themselves to be decent parents. But it's never easy, and the movie doesn't give any easy answers. Up until the last 10 minutes or so, it's more about presenting the problems of Sam's situation than it is about solutions, which is why the ending, though not exactly pat, is a little disappointing. Nonetheless, the film as a whole is made up of wonderful slices of Sam's life with his daughter--some joyful, others heart wrenching. Call it manipulative, call it melodramatic, call it what you will; it won't stop audiences from sobbing at the sad moments and keeping the waterworks going through the happy ones. It's just that kind of film.

Bottom Line

I Am Sam is no two-tissue sniffler. It's a full-on, bring-the-box bawler that some may call manipulative. But few will resist the movie's emotional pull and the charm with which it's enacted.