If you're in the mood to cry a little and go "Awww" a lot, then "I Am
Sam" is the movie for you. Wait, let me qualify that. If you're in the
mood to cry a little and go "Awww" a lot and you don't mind being
shamelessly manipulated, then "I Am Sam" is the movie for you. Wait, let
me qualify that. If you're in the mood to cry a little and go "Awww" a
lot and you don't mind being shamelessly manipulated by a script so
unrealistic that it could only take place in a parallel universe, then
"I Am Sam" is the movie for you.
"I Am Sam" pretends to tell the story of a mentally retarded man
fighting to get his young daughter back after the state takes her away.
"Pretends" is the operative word, because virtually nothing that happens
in this film would occur in real life.
The tearjerker opens with Sam Dawson (Sean Penn), a mentally retarded
40-year-old man with autistic tendencies, bussing tables at a Starbucks
in suburban Los Angeles. Sam spends the rest of his time lovingly
tending to his 7-year-old daughter Lucy (Dakota Fanning), the product of
a one-night stand between Sam and a homeless woman who left shortly
after the birth of the child. Lucy, a whip-snap smart little girl,
recognizes that daddy is "different" and is fiercely protective of him.
Sam raises the girl with the assistance of several retarded buddies and
his agoraphobic neighbor, Annie (Dianne Wiest).
Sam and Lucy's happy life of reading Dr. Seuss and sharing minutia about
the Beatles comes apart when a woman hits on him and he innocently
agrees that he "likes to have a good time." An undercover cop springs
out of nowhere and hauls the confused man to jail for soliciting a
prostitute. Even though the charges are dropped, the encounter draws the
attention of the Department of Child Services. They take Lucy away,
reasoning that, since Sam has a mental age of 7 and Lucy is turning 7,
she will soon intellectually outgrow him, making him an unfit father.
Desperate to rescue his child, Sam ends up in the law office of
high-profile attorney Rita Harrison (Michelle Pfeiffer), because the ad
for her firm is the biggest in the yellow pages. After initially
brushing him off, Rita eventually gets shamed into taking his case pro
bono. Ironically, while representing a father and daughter that love
each other immeasurably, she and her own son constantly squabble with
So what's wrong with this picture? Everything. As the proud papa of a
retarded son and a veteran of the social services system, let me fill
Sam would never have worked at Starbucks (you can't support a kid on
that kind of money), he never would have been arrested (the second the
officer realized Sam was retarded he would have cut him loose) and the
state would never have tried to take Lucy away, particularly for such an
idiotic reason (if he was such an ill-equipped parent, how the hell did
he raise her for those first seven years and how did she turn out so
well-balanced and quick witted?).
Shortly after the departure of the mother, Sam's boss, Annie or another
friend would make a few calls and connect him with the social services
system. Programs vary from state to state, but Sam would soon end up
with an organization designed to help retarded adults live as
independently as possible. Sam's liaison person would assist him in
finding a better-paying job (which would not be hard given his good
nature and relatively high social skills) and an appropriately sized
apartment. Even though Annie and Sam's buddies already help with Lucy,
the liaison worker would strengthen the support system by insuring the
availability of staff persons to assist the father and daughter as
Incidentally, the presence of such programs does not indicate an
enlightened bureaucracy. The bozos are still in charge. These programs
came into place solely because the state finally realized that offering
this sort of support is far cheaper than other options.
Had I been one of the producers of "I Am Sam," I would inform writers
Kristine Johnson and Jessie Nelson that their script is 30 years out of
date just before chucking it into the wastebasket. Then I would say, "If
you want to do a feel-good movie, do an honest one. Start the story on
the day the mother leaves. Focus on Sam as he turns to Annie and his
buddies for help. Devote more time to Annie and her agoraphobia. Keep
Sam's buddies, particularly Joseph Rosenberg and Brad Allan Silverman -
the actors who are mentally handicapped in real life - they do a
"Draw your tears by depicting Sam's day-to-day struggles to maintain a
job and care for his daughter while making sure she has sufficient
contact with people of average intelligence to insure that she does not
end up socially retarded. And you can keep Michelle Pfeiffer's character
in the film - just make Rita another neighbor that Sam draws into his
"Hold on to the soundtrack of Beatles' covers by all those
singer-songwriters - it's a dandy. Finally, I don't want to hear Sam use
Beatles' anecdotes as metaphors for what is occurring around him: People
with a mental age of 7 do not traffic in metaphors."
As I usher the writers out of my office, I would conclude by saying,
"Kristine and Jessie, count your blessings. Sean Penn, Michelle Pfeiffer
and little Dakota Fanning are exceptional talents and the onscreen
rapport between Sam and Lucy, not to mention Sam and Rita, is
delightful. Just put that wretched script, including the cheesy ending
that conveniently ignores every issue raised during the story, behind
you and write a new one that does justice to these characters."
And I'd be right.
Copyright © 2002 Edward Johnson-Ott