Eric D. Snider

I Am Sam

Some movies melt your heart. "I Am Sam" microwaves it. Rather than go the long way around to your emotions -- you know, with sympathetic characters and good writing -- it uses movie shortcuts like retarded people and cute kids. Put those in a movie, and the tears are guaranteed, regardless of how clumsy or inept the movie is.

"I Am Sam" is about a retarded adult named Sam (Sean Penn) who fathered a child seven years ago and has raised her on his own, thanks to the mother walking out on him almost immediately after giving birth. The little girl is Lucy (Dakota Fanning), and if she's not just the cutest thing in the world, then I don't know what is. They have a sweet father-daughter relationship, and Lucy is only mildly concerned that, at 7 years old, she has the same mental capacity as her daddy.

Alas, the courts feel otherwise. Unless he can prove he's a competent father, Sam will lose Lucy. Lucky for him, a high-powered attorney named Rita (Michelle Pfeiffer) is guilted by her colleagues into taking his case for free, but she has her work cut out for her. All of Sam's friends are mentally challenged, too, which makes them less than ideal on the witness stand. His only non-retarded acquaintance is Annie (Dianne Wiest), and she's agoraphobic and won't leave the house.

The movie is smug, bent on using the Enlightened Retarded Guy to show us the error of our ways. Sure, he's retarded, but at least he's devoted to his daughter -- which is more than you can say for the endless parade of contrasting examples the movie sets up for us. (One guy keeps correcting his son during a classroom presentation, a divorcing couple argues over which partner should be stuck with the kid, Rita herself doesn't spend enough time with her son -- and so on.)

And consider this: In the movie, anyone who even raises the idea that maybe a retarded man with a part-time job and no spouse is not the ideal parent is made out to be an unfeeling villain. Shame on you for even thinking such a thing!

Sean Penn gives more of an imitation (albeit a good one) than a performance, while Michelle Pfeiffer is embarrassingly flustered and high-strung as the lawyer. Little Dakota Fanning yanks the heartstrings like she's starting a lawnmower.

Writer/director Jessie Nelson wrote the equally maudlin "Stepmom," and her work on "I Am Sam" is no improvement. It is a film calculated to MAKE YOU CRY. If you like being manipulated in obvious ways, go for it.

Grade: C-

Rated PG-13, one harsh profanity and some other mild profanity

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This item has 8 comments

  1. Lohengrin says:

    It irritated me to no end that this handicapped guy was allowed to take his daughter back when it was obvious that he was utterly incapable of taking care of her. Stupid American films. There must be a law somewhere stating that the Protaganast is always right and will always get what he wants, regardless of the danger, damage and pain it will cause other people.

    I felt fairly good about this movie until the last 20 minutes when he gets his daughter back.

  2. Dougrad says:

    I was surprised that Sam was somehow able to raise his daughter alone for the first seven years, which can be the hardest, and it seemed like his developmental level fluctuated throughout the film. Sometimes he seemed really high-functioning, and sometimes not-so-much during other times. The real part that bothered me is when he had the public tantrum at Bob's Big Boy simply over the fact that they didn't have regular pancakes. I could see this happening with a more severely challenged adult, but surely not one who is able to get around in public, work a job, live independently, and take care of a young daughter as well.

  3. James Trout says:

    I wanted to like this movie. The movie has a good premise- a mentally handicapped man raising his daughter- and a good message- people with disabilities are people too. The problem I have with this movie is that I have a very difficult time believing that HIS (Sean Penn's) particular character could successfully raise a child with no family assistance and virtually no outside support. The movie takes a complex issue and turns it into a black and white situation where anyone who questions the protagonist's ability to successfully parent to be a person incapable of empathy. The problem is that yes Sam loves his daughter and vice versa, the sad reality is that without a strong social network at minimum, Sam CANNOT single handily raise his daughter. You don't have to be Bill Gates or Albert Einstein to raise a child, but you do have to have a good deal of money and intelligence to balance out the love. Love is the most important thing, but love ALONE is not enough. This film's inability to acknowledge that sinks it in my eyes.

  4. Hannah Lee says:

    I disagree with James. I don't think the movie makes a complex issue black & white. Lucy is not neglected in areas which don't have a way to be replaced. For, example the fact that her mental capacity is surpassing Sam's is somewhat remedied by Sam planning to get free tutoring for Lucy.(Which Pfeiffer's character has found/researched) Additionally, Sam comes to the realization that Lucy's life is enriched by the presence of female role models, such as the Laura Dern character and Pfeiffer, as well as the piano teacher. Pfeiffer & Dern both show up at her soccer game in the final scene. The ability to cope with this type of challenge for a child really depends on the individual kid. Many kids don't have natural intelligence, like Lucy. If anything, it's the typical reaction to these types of situations, which choose separation, which are black & white. I wouldn't say having a retarded parent is ideal for the average insensitive, video-game playing, ADHD kids of today. However, some kids are very sensitive to the level of love that they get or don't get from parents. I think the character of Lucy is truly a deep and sensitive child thanks to Fanning's performance. Imagine the role of Lucy played by an obnoxious, self-centered, brat. In that case I would say that kid needs a new home ASAP.

  5. c.k says:

    This a beautiful movie, and yes its a heart string puller!

  6. James Trout says:

    The problem Hannah is that "I am Sam" doesn't really talk about the issues that a person like Sam Dawson would face in real life. There is basically no discussion about independent living that Sam would have to deal with: things like finances, cooking, et cetera are basically glossed over in the movie. The focus is basically exclusively on the father/daughter relationship and the film is written on the premise that people have to be told let alone beaten over the head that people with disabilities can love. As a person who technically has a disability (I have Asperger's Syndrome)I fine that to be DEEPLY insulting. For me the biggest issue was the lack of credibility the movie has, the fact the courts waited SEVEN years to get involved to me is not credible because there would be people who would have noticed problems before hand. If he had the ability to live independently, that should have been stressed in court. A line like "Sam may have a disability, but he is just like any other person. He cooks, cleans, maintains a job, just like any of us" would have helped IMHO. I agree Hannah that completely removing Sam from Lucy's life would be the wrong solution, but I would oppose allowing Sam sole custody of her under the circumstances that he is in. What I don't like about that movie, is that it would say that I am #1. prejudiced against people with disabilities #2. an unfeeling P.O.S. or #3. both. That is what I object to.

  7. Dagupan, Nilo Cunanan says:

    The movie will not only melt your heart but also it will definitely give us the courage to enhance our independency manners inorder to survive in any sort of obstacles on life.

    It will also create a good example of a person who is very dedicated to his lovingly daughter.

    Not only to state that every moments of our life needs a living partner but also to have our own hands to work on different things.

  8. carol g. magsaysay says:

    the movie focuses on father-daughter relationship, it is pretty true that ones mental capacity has no bearing in loving a person specially your child. for me, the government should not only focus on the child's future but also on the program that will help special people on how to improve their lives as providing training, helping in in social emotional aspects, activities for daily living, and eventually support them in their job where they may excel more.

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