I Am Sam

I Am Sam

USA, 2001. Rated R. 132 minutes.

Cast: Sean Penn, Michelle Pfeiffer, Dakota Fanning, Dianne Wiest, Laura Dern, Joseph Rosenberg, Brad Silverman, Richard Schiff, Stanley DeSantis, Loretta Devine, Doug Hutchison
Writers: Kristine Johnson & Jessie Nelson
Music: John Powell, songs by Lennon/McCartney (performed by various artists)
Cinematographer: Elliot Davis
Producers: Marshall Herskovitz, Edward Zwick, Jessie Nelson, Richard Solomon
Director: Jessie Nelson


Grade: C Review by Carlo Cavagna

"L ove is all you need."

What a load of crap!

A developmentally disabled man with the mental capacity of a seven-year old cannot--repeat, cannot--effectively raise a child to adulthood. Forget effectively…he can't even do it safely. Not without help. A lot of help, like from a huge network of friends and other family members. Otherwise it is impossible, for reasons too numerous and obvious to list.

Hollywood would have you believe that Sam Dawson (Sean Penn) can, in fact, responsibly raise his daughter Lucy Diamond (Dakota Fanning). A seven-year old herself, she is just beginning to pass Sam's point of development when Child and Family Services intervenes. Realistically, though, it's preposterous for Lucy to have already reached the age of seven without the authorities taking an interest, without some sort of major mishap, and with only a few wise words from reclusive neighbor Annie (Dianne Wiest) to guide Sam.

Everything the nefarious Child and Family Services people (Richard Schiff and Loretta Devine) argue in court is perfectly reasonable, but they are nefarious nonetheless because they want to come between a father and daughter and because they browbeat Sam in court.Sean Penn and Dakota Fanning

On the advice of the judge, Sam seeks representation, going to the first lawyer he finds in the phone book. Amazingly, that lawyer turns out to be Michelle Pfeiffer. Her character, Rita Harrison, is a stressed-out shark with no time for her own family, let alone Sam's. Screenplay contrivances save the day. Sam is persistent, and finally catches her at a time when she's trying to prove she's willing to work pro bono. Rita Harrison's subplots are little Hollywood morality plays in themselves.

Perhaps sensing the box it has written itself into, the screenplay shies at the end, failing to provide a conclusive resolution. It's clear, though, that the movie wants us to believe (in the overwritten words of another recent film) Something Extraordinary Is Possible. The screenplay offers a few genuinely charming and funny individual moments--more than a few, actually. The Beatles motif permeating the film (note Lucy's middle name) is beaten to death, however. The entire soundtrack consists of Beatles covers by contemporary artists. (I guess Lennon/McCartney rights-holder Michael Jackson needed money.)

The problem with dismissing I Am Sam as a treacly Hollywood construct is that the acting is superb, tour-de-force stuff. This isn't just another mentally handicapped role for the Big Star to make his Oscar bid. The role was almost certainly written that way, but this is Sean Penn we're talking about. Despite the fact that he agreed to participate in an emotionally fraudulent film such as this, his artistic integrity is completely intact.

Penn consistently finds the realism in a role that has precious little to begin with. His famed attention to detail is superlative, and his performance perfect. Not too over the top, as with some other Penn performances, but not too afraid to be over the top, either. This performance is every bit as good as his work in Dead Man Walking. Seriously.

The rest of the cast complements Penn well. Pfeiffer has talent to burn herself, even though for the past several years she's been wasting it in broad big-studio films that involve children. Pfeiffer has made it clear that she loves being a mom, and it's obviously affecting her artistic choices. She really needs to let someone else pick her roles. Dakota Fanning is outstanding, as well. Given that Lucy and Sam are at the same developmental age, their roles are fluid. Lucy, who (not surprisingly) is more serious than most children, often finds herself cast as the parent. Fanning pulls it off without seeming overly precious or precocious--not an easy feat. This is a remarkable young actor.

So where does all this leave I Am Sam? As a much better film than it has any right to be, but still not a good one. Acting aficionados should check it out--they really should--as should those who are tolerant of feel-good contrivances. There's nothing wrong with feel-good movies, but sometimes you have to wonder why dishonest contrivances are necessary to make us feel good.

Review © January 2002 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Images © 2001 New Line Productions, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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