I Am Sam

A maximum tearjerker that adroitly uses the undisguised emotions of the mentally challenged to tell a clear, stripped-down story about the love between a father and his child. That this film's emotionally manipulative premise and an often-contrived screenplay manage to succeed as powerful drama is due mostly to a pair of unflinchingly honest performances...read more

Reviewed by Frank Lovece
Rating:

A maximum tearjerker that adroitly uses the undisguised emotions of the mentally challenged to tell a clear, stripped-down story about the love between a father and his child. That this film's emotionally manipulative premise and an often-contrived screenplay manage to succeed as powerful drama is due mostly to a pair of unflinchingly honest performances by Sean Penn, as a single father with the IQ of a seven-year-old, and Michelle Pfeiffer, as the brutally self-centered L.A. lawyer shamed into representing him pro bono when the State tries to take away his daughter. Sam Dawson (Penn) is a high-functioning, mentally disabled man who takes drink orders at a well-known coffee-bar chain. Sweet and open, if occasionally excitable, Sam is well-liked by his co-workers, who are thrilled for him when he becomes a father. The trouble lies with the mother, a homeless floozy whom Sam allowed to live in his modest apartment; the second they leave the hospital with the baby (named Lucy Diamond, after the Beatles song), Mom bolts. Sam is suddenly alone with an infant, but with the major help of his next-door neighbor, agoraphobic piano teacher Annie (Dianne Wiest), he manages to keep Lucy fed, clothed, played with and loved like nobody's business. You don't have to be genius to handle 3 am feedings — just a little patience and the ability to learn a circumscribed series of tasks, both of which are within Sam's range. The idyll comes to an end once Lucy (now played by Dakota Fanning, whose talent rivals that of the young Jodie Foster) is enrolled in school and begins to feel ashamed of the father she always understood was different, but never before in a negative way. Intrusive school bureaucrats lobby to have Lucy taken away from Sam, and after a couple of unfortunate incidents involving an unbelievably evil parent and child, and officials who are either unfeeling or incredibly dense, they manage to do just that. The deck is clearly stacked for the audience to root for Sam, but throughout the events leading up to and including the court proceedings involving attorney Rita Harrison (a stunning Pfeiffer in a knockout performance), the affection between father and daughter is so real it's almost a character in itself. We're swept along by it, and Penn's stark and unvarnished portrait of the challenged Sam makes even the hardest-to-swallow plot point acceptable. You might quibble with specifics, but the emotional truth of the whole cannot be denied.

{