I Am Sam-2001
Starring-Sean Penn, Michelle Pfeiffer
Scott’s Review #1,097
Reviewed December 30, 2020
Sean Penn stars as a mentally disabled man who fathers a child and is determined to cling to custody of her after he is deemed unfit to parent in I Am Sam (2001), a drama that garnered Penn an Oscar nomination. The brilliant actor may have deserved the win since he breathes life into a film riddled with every cliché imaginable. Besides his performance, and that of novice Dakota Fanning, the film would be drivel. As it is, it’s mediocre at best.
Somewhere, sometime, somehow, in cinema history, the consensus became that if an actor plays a mentally challenged character, he or she is assured an Academy award nomination. Juliette Lewis tried and failed with the cringeworthy The Other Sister (1999), but Penn has better credibility. Dustin Hoffman also succeeded with Rain Man (1988).
Sam (Penn) is well-adjusted man and has a supportive group of friends with disabilities. His neighbor, Annie, (Dianne Wiest) assists with raising Sam’s daughter, Lucy (Fanning), but the eight-year-old quickly exceeds the mental capacity of her father, leading to frustration and conflict. Lucy’s mother, a homeless woman, has vanished from the scene.
The justice system determines that Lucy must go to a foster family led by Randy (Laura Dern), which results in Sam hiring a no-nonsense attorney, Rita (Pfeiffer). Both Randy and Rita sympathize with Sam and must convince the courts that he can raise her.
Jessie Nelson, who directs I Am Sam, also directed safe films like Corrina, Corrina (1994) and Stepmom (1999), so her intention to present a warm and soft experience is easy to figure out. This is not meant to criticize her direction style as much as to point out that the result is not a hard-edged, gritty experience. It’s a crowd-pleaser and there is never a moment where Nelson wants the audience to root against Sam keeping custody of Lucy, regardless of the reality.
Penn saves the film from being a complete stereotype. It’s apparent that Sam adores Lucy and the actor is not afraid to cry and express genuine emotion on cue. He’s a great actor and makes the most out of the role. He does his best to insinuate that mentally challenged people are like everyone else- they can keep a job, pay bills, hire a lawyer, and fight for their kids. His task is tough, but he succeeds. That’s what raises I Am Sam as an overall product.
Fanning, who in 2001 was about to embark on a fabulously rich acting career, is wonderful. Unlike many child actors, cast because they are cute or bubbly, she has real acting chops. She is neither girly nor overly sad in her emotions. Fanning is as strong, focused, and detailed as her eight-year-old character is.
Speaking of stereotypes, Pfeiffer is awarded the grand prize in female attorney banality. She is haggard, absorbed in her work, and has no time for her own son, only taking Sam’s case to prove she is a kind person since she agrees to pro bono work. Predictably, she realizes, through Sam, that she is wasting her life away, leaves her husband, and spends more time with her son. Dern does her best with a weak role as the one-dimensional foster parent who realizes she cannot be half the parent that Sam can.
The film’s title is derived from the opening lines “I am Sam / Sam I am” of the book Green Eggs and Ham, which is read in the movie. This makes the film showcase a sentimentalism and hammers home the point that the mentally disabled are child-like and need the help, patience, and understanding of non-disabled adults, as if that isn’t obvious.
The conclusion to I Am Sam is expected. The lengthy courtroom scenes are wrapped with a nice shiny bow as Sam predictably retains custody of Lucy as the supporting cast gather on a soccer field and dutifully gush with delight at how great a father he is. This is a fine tribute, or fantasy, and if only real-life were like this what a better world it would be. I would have preferred a story with more meat.
I Am Sam (2001) is recommended only for huge fans of Sean Penn or those who desire an oversentimental experience. It might have been better suited for Lifetime television.
Oscar Nominations: Best Actor-Sean Penn