From 1988's "Rain Man" to 1988's "Dominick and Eugene" to 1999's "The
Other Sister," so many dramas about the mentally disabled have been
made that they have created a whole genre of their own. The plot of
"I Am Sam," written and directed by Jessie Nelson (1994's "Corrina,
Corrina") and co-written by Kristine Johnson (1994's "Imaginary Crimes"),
threatens to turn the proceedings into a made-for-TV movie, but it
is through the three-dimensional writing of the characters and the
exemplary performances that buoy it above the norm.
Sam Dawson (Sean Penn) is a 40-year-old mentally retarded man who
finds himself with a daughter after a one-night-stand. Working at
Starbucks and getting help from a kindly neighbor (Dianne Wiest),
Sam is able to successfully raise his child, Lucy (Dakota Fanning),
on his own. With Lucy's seventh birthday approaching, a predicament
arises: Sam has the brain capacity of a 7-year-old himself, and what
will he do when Lucy surpasses his level of intelligence?
Through a misunderstanding that gets Sam arrested for allegedly attempting
to solicit a prostitute, Lucy is taken away from him. Not knowing
what to do, Sam is coaxed by his buddies to hire a lawyer to take
the case to court so he can regain custody of his daughter. The attorney
he chooses, and who agrees to take the case on pro bono simply to
impress her colleagues, is Rita Harrison (Michelle Pfeiffer), a short-tempered,
high-powered woman whose job keeps her away from her own young son.
The two major relationships followed is that of Sam and Lucy, and
Sam and Rita. While Sam and Lucy have a beautifully loving bond, the
question posed is whether love is enough when you are trying to raise
a child more advanced than the parent. Meanwhile, the shallow Rita
ends up learning more from Sam than he learns from her, namely how
to grow a conscience and much-needed empathy.
Thoughtful and emotionally rewarding, "I Am Sam" works more successfully
than it has any right to. The courtroom storyline is a by-now stock
plot element that, if not treated with the right tone and style, often
resembles a movie appearing on the Lifetime network. The distinct
and honest treatment of the characters here overcomes this dubious
risk, and their personal growth is invigorated with a sure, poignant
hand that mostly avoids mawkishness.
Portraying a type of character he has never tried out before, Sean
Penn (1998's "Hurlyburly") is exceptional and sympathetic as Sam,
even when his handicap causes him to become difficult and stubborn.
Playing a mentally retarded person on film is a tricky task. It may
sound relatively easy, but the emotions and body movements have to
seem genuine, rather than acted. Penn never once breaks from the role,
and more than ably becomes the center of the picture.
Opposite Penn is Michelle Pfeiffer (2000's "What Lies Beneath") as
attorney Rita Harrison. No fault of Pfeiffer's, as she was likely
directed to act the way she does, but Rita is set up in the first
half as an appalling individual without one redeeming quality about
her. She is close-minded, snobbish, and greedy. It is only as the
film progresses that she manages to understand and befriend Sam's
position, and put what she has learned from him into action with her
own neglected family. Pfeiffer holds her own against Penn, but is simply not very likable.
As 7-year-old Lucy, what can be said about newcomer Dakota Fanning
other than that her performance is the best of someone as young as
she since 4-year-old Victoire Thivisol's powerhouse turn in 1997's
"Ponette." Fanning is not just an adorably cute child, but also surprisingly
unaffected and touching. She has some of the most difficult scenes
in the picture, and handles each one like a pro who has been doing
this far longer than her age suggests.
Rounding out the top-notch cast are Laura Dern (2001's "Novocaine"),
marvelous in the superbly written supporting role of Lucy's understanding
new foster mother; the incomparable, underworked Dianne Wiest (1998's
"Practical Magic") as Lucy's godmother; Loretta Devine (1998's "Urban
Legend" and 2000's "Urban Legends: Final Cut") as social service worker
Margaret Calgrove; and Doug Hutchison (1999's "The Green Mile"), effortlessly
disappearing into the part of Sam's autistic friend who has an affinity for movies.
Occasional moments in "I Am Sam" are left to play out for so long
that they lose their effectiveness, no more than Rita's emotional
breakdown scene. The turning point for Rita as she pours out her soul
to Sam, Pfeiffer does a plaudatory job, but subtle flaws in her work
are wrongfully exposed by an editor who seemingly fell asleep while
working on the scene. By going on for what seemed like an eternity,
Pfeiffer's big moment passes over the point of poignancy to become
emotionally sterile. Comparatively, a dramatic scene late in the film
between Dern and Penn is flawlessly handled, and earns all of the
deep emotions it sets out to achieve.
With a memorable soundtrack made up of Beatles cover tunes (Sam's
favorite musicians) and hand-held cinematography by Elliot Davis (2000's
"The Next Best Thing") that injects a stirring authenticity to the
characters' dilemmas, "I Am Sam" is strong enough work from director
Jessie Nelson to stand above the crowd of similar films. Through the
course of its somewhat overlong 132 minutes, we grow to care about
and love Sam, Lucy, and almost everyone else involved. And as The
Beatles' and Sam's motto goes, "All you need is love."
Copyright © 2002 Dustin Putman