You’ll laugh. You’ll cry. (My eyes welled up at least eight times.) You’ll be convinced that Sean Penn is retarded—in a good way.
In I AM SAM, Penn plays Sam, a mentally retarded man. The film opens on his daughter (Fanning) being born and her mother immediately fleeing the scene once they leave the hospital. Sam, a man with the mental capacity of a seven-year-old, is left alone to raise his child. An avid Beatles fan, he names the baby Lucy Diamond. Sam and Lucy are like two peas in a pod as she grows into a little girl. With the help of his faithful friends, a group of five mentally-challenged, big-hearted guys, and his agoraphobic neighbor, Annie (Wiest), he raises Lucy to be sharp-witted, thoughtful, and loving. But as Lucy matures, she begins to surpass Sam’s level of intelligence and tries to hold herself back because she wants to be like him. A social worker (Devine) steps in and yanks Lucy out of her father’s arms, literally, and into a foster home.
The remainder of the film involves a lengthy yet captivating custody battle. The film is well paced, aside from a couple of false endings that left me wondering when it would be over. This film is ripe for extreme sappiness and sentimentality. It has neither. Spruced with covers of appropriate Beatles songs by contemporary artists (including Sheryl Crow and Eddie Vedder), I AM SAM is a modern, genuinely human, and simple tale of a very special father-daughter relationship.
Sam’s childlike innocence contrasts with that of his lawyer, Rita Harrison (Pfeiffer). She is a high-powered, cold, self-absorbed woman who initially blows Sam off, telling him that he can’t afford her services. To prove her coworkers wrong, she takes the case pro bono and so begins the tumultuous relationship between Rita and Sam. Rita is easy to hate at first, but eventually begins to show her weaknesses, and becomes more likable. Sam, despite his mental challenges, touches Rita, and teaches her—and the movie watchers —valuable lessons about parenting, family bonds, and love.
I AM SAM’s screenwriters did their research and it shows. They hung out at L.A. Goal, a non-profit organization in Los Angeles that serves adults with developmental disabilities. So did Penn. To get into character, he immersed himself in the lifestyle of a disabled adult. This really paid off. His performance is riveting. At first, it felt a little reminiscent of Dustin Hoffman’s character in RAIN MAN but Penn soon developed Sam into his own unique, complex, unconditionally loving character. The cast includes two actors with disabilities, which adds to the raw, real life feeling of the film.
Pfeiffer’s performance is excellent as well. Within the confines of her character, she shows a broad range, from the matter-of-fact attorney who “always wins” to the loving mother/distant wife trying, somewhat unsuccessfully, to balance work and family life, to the devoted supporter of Sam’s cause. The young child actress who plays Lucy, Dakota Fanning, is a delight. And I am not easily amused by kids, trust me. I find most child actors highly annoying. She’s not. She’s cute, but not too cute. The only fault in her character is that she seems too wise for her age. Perhaps the writers were trying to contrast her with Sam, but sometimes it came off as unreal.
On the whole, I AM SAM is touching and entertaining, delivering heartfelt and comedic moments along with top-notch performances. I promise it’s not a chick flick though, just a solid, memorable film about love and family ties for girls and guys alike.