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I Am Sam: Love is Pro Bono

  • May 18, 2004
  • by
Pros: Penn, Fanning, Sam's friends, sweet, moving

Cons: Predictable, unrealistic, manipulative, Michelle Pfeiffer

The Bottom Line: Sean Penn is Sam. Sam he is.

Plot Details: This opinion reveals major details about the movie''s plot.

During I am Sam, I forgot that I was watching Sean Penn portraying a mentally handicapped man. Forgive me for stating the obvious, but that’s the mark of great acting. Like Charlize Theron in Monster, Penn completely transforms himself for the role. I never once thought of him as the guy who used to be married to Madonna. For 132 minutes, Penn is Sam.

Unfortunately, the script, plot, and co-star Michelle Pfeiffer aren’t nearly as good as Penn’s performance. The unapologetically manipulative film drags through several court scenes and a horribly predictable transformation by Pfeiffer as a too-busy working mother. However, Penn, Dakota Fanning, and a soundtrack full of surprisingly good Beatles covers keep this moving film from teetering into cheesy territory.

Sam Dawson (Penn), who is sweeter than the packets of sugar he arranges at the Starbucks where he works, has a mental age of seven along with some autistic and obsessive-compulsive tendencies. He is thrilled when his girlfriend gives birth to a baby girl, and he names his daughter Lucy Diamond as an homage to the Fab Four. While Sam can hardly read and lacks certain social skills, he has an almost encyclopedic knowledge of Beatles trivia. As they are leaving the hospital, Sam’s girlfriend hands Lucy to him and runs away, leaving him bewildered in the middle of Los Angeles. We later learn that his girlfriend was homeless and was just using him for a place to stay. It’s unclear how Sam can afford his decent apartment with a minimum wage job, but I Am Sam worries more about pulling on your heart strings than being realistic.

It’s heart-breaking to watch Sam trying to take care of an infant, but, with the help of his neighbor Annie (Dianne Wiest) and his group of mentally handicapped friends, Sam manages to raise his adorable daughter to the age of seven. They read Dr. Seuss together, and it’s all very lovely until school officials notice that Lucy’s reading skills have stopped improving. They figure out that Lucy is afraid of becoming smarter than her father, and she is taken into state custody. It seemed a bit unlikely to me that Lucy would be sophisticated enough to consciously pretend not to know certain words to spare her father’s feelings. Alas, this film features several instances of the child making observations and comments that seemed far too advanced for her age.

After Lucy is taken away, the film changes into a courtroom drama as Sam tries to win back custody of his daughter. Of course, we are supposed to root for Sam to get Lucy back, but he seems slightly unfit as a parent, so I felt somewhat conflicted. And therein lies the beauty of the film. It’s realistic in that there are really no bad guys. High powered lawyer Rita Harrison (double Beatles reference!) starts out by coldly refusing to help Sam but eventually warms to him and his plight. The DSS worker who takes Lucy away (Loretta Devine) is simply looking out for the girl’s best interests, and the adoptive mother (Laura Dern) wants Lucy to be happy even if it destroys her own dream of having a daughter to care for.

There is a bit of humor as Rita interviews Sam’s friends to try to get them to testify in the trial and as the friends discuss various movies for their weekly “video night.” It borders on making fun of the mentally handicapped but stays just on the tasteful side of the Farrelly Brothers line. These jokes don’t seem mean-spirited, and we come away from it thinking that Sam’s friends are very earnest and kind.

The soundtrack, which is crucial to I Am Sam, makes even the Beatles songs you’ve heard 650 times sound innocent and new again. Normally, I think that covering the Beatles is sacrilege, but The Black Crowes, Aimee Mann, The Wallflowers, Rufus Wainwright, Ben Harper, Eddie Vedder, Sarah McLachlan, and Sheryl Crow do it with appropriate reverence.

Ironically, the movie’s content directly contradicts its idealistic, Beatles-themed tagline: Love is all you need. Sam is brimming with love for Lucy, but he needs a lawyer to get her back and the wisdom of a neighbor to help him change her diapers.

At the beginning of the film, director Jessie Nelson uses dizzying camera techniques to emphasize Sam’s confusion. New parents are always overwhelmed even if they have the mental age of thirty, so it’s hard to imagine how Sam can cope.

Young Dakota Fanning is a fantastic little actress, and the scenes with her and Penn feel fresh and unique. The film takes a turn for the worse, however, when Pfeiffer arrives on the scene, playing the power-suited, high strung lawyer by the books and reeking of cliché. Also, the storyline is engaging, but it certainly doesn’t have enough meat to warrant a 132-minute running time.

However, I found the film very moving, and I liked it much more than my three-star rating lets on. Nonetheless, I realize that it’s one of those movies you either love or hate. My friends’ reactions ranged from “aw, I love that movie” to groans (but nothing in between) when I told them I’d seen it.

It’s rare that movies that blatantly try to make the audience cry actually succeed, but both my mom (who’s even more of a cynic than I am) and I got a little teary during I Am Sam.


Viewing Format: VHS
Video Occasion: Better than Watching TV
Suitability For Children: Suitable for Children Age 13 and Older

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More I Am Sam reviews
review by . August 09, 2010
posted in Movie Hype
Sean Penn is one actor that seems to never get the recognition he deserves; he's a fabulous actor in any movie I've seen him in; in "I Am Sam" he was simply superb.        Penn plays the character Sam, an honest, hardworking, patient, delightful, very wise and humble man - who is challenged with the mentality of an 8 year old.  He is handed his newborn baby daughter by the mother who quickly runs away on a bus; she wants nothing to do with a baby, …
review by . January 10, 2004
Pros: Great soundtrack, fantastic acting, meaningful and emotional story     Cons: Absolutely nothing, except the amount of tissues I had to use     The Bottom Line: This is a great emotional, meaningful story. Make sure you grab a box of tissues!
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Sam Dawson (Sean Penn), a man with a developmental disability, lives in Los Angeles, works at Starbucks, and is the sole guardian of his six-year-old daughter Lucy (Dakota Fanning), after her mother abandoned them. Despite his limitations, Sam is well-adjusted and has a supportive group of friends with developmental disabilities, as well as a kind, agoraphobic neighbor Annie (Dianne Wiest) who takes care of Lucy when Sam cannot. Though Sam provides a loving and caring environment for precocious Lucy, she soon surpasses his mental ability. Other children tease her for having a "retard" as a father, and she becomes too embarrassed to accept that she is more intellectually advanced than Sam. In preparation for a custody case, a social worker turns up at Lucy's birthday party and takes her away, allowing Sam two supervised visits per week.

On the advice of his friends, Sam approaches a high-powered lawyer, Rita Harrison (Michelle Pfeiffer), whose brusque manner, fast-paced schedule and difficult personal life have earned her a reputation as cold and unfeeling. In an attempt to prove to others that she isn't heartless, Rita surprisingly agrees to take on Sam's case for free (pro bono). As they work together to secure Sam's parental rights, Sam unwittingly helps Rita with her family problems, including encouraging her to leave her philandering husband and repairing her fractious relationship with her son.

During the trial period, Lucy is ...

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