Sunday 10 July 2022

Movie Review: I Am Sam (2001)

A parenting drama with legal sparring, I Am Sam is sentimental but also well-intentioned and brilliantly acted.

Starbucks employee Sam Dawson (Sean Penn) has an intellectual disability and a mental age of seven. A homeless woman gives birth to his child and immediately walks out on him. Sam manages to raise his daughter Lucy through the infant years with the help of his reclusive neighbour Annie (Dianne Wiest), and a group of friends with disabilities.

Once Lucy (Dakota Fanning) reaches the age of eight, she experiences bullying and becomes aware of her father's condition. She starts to hold back her academic development to avoid embarrassing her dad. Social services move in and declare Sam incapable of parenting his daughter. He turns to high-powered lawyer Rita Williams (Michelle Pfeiffer) to fight the decision. Rita is initially not interested, but eventually accepts the case pro-bono, while Lucy is placed in the foster home of Miranda Carpenter (Laura Dern).

Asking questions about what defines good parenting, I Am Sam is comfortable offering a range of answers. The script by Kristine Johnson and director Jessie Nelson ponders whether love is enough, and the role of intellectual capacity in determining the need for state intervention. The narrative evolution is careful to avoid villains in this debate: everyone is kind, including the lawyer arguing Sam is ill equipped to help Lucy's growth into an adult. To maintain balance, Sam is portrayed as loving and good natured but also often overwhelmed and childlike.

As a result, Nelson is drawn towards a saccharine tone. Almost every scene and all the main characters are propelled by a purity of purpose designed to elicit sympathy. Sam and Lucy are immensely likeable, and lawyer Rita starts on the frantic partner track but is always moving towards her destiny of heroically representing the underdog. All the secondary characters including neighbour Annie, Sam's friends, and foster parent Miranda are manicured into ideal versions.

Sean Penn delivers an unforgettable performance, combining elements of Tom Hanks from Forrest Gump with Dustin Hoffman from Rain Man to create an affecting child-man in Sam. He can function as a coffee shop table server and does just enough to get by, the songs of the Beatles and the movie Kramer vs. Kramer significant influences on his behaviour. Susceptible to awkward tantrums when frustrated, he can read at the level of Dr. Seuss's I Am Sam, but struggles when Lucy's school assignments move beyond the rudimentary.

The supporting cast is stellar, particularly bright-eyed Dakota Fanning as Lucy. She enhances every scene without descending into irony or precociousness. 

At 132 minutes I Am Sam does go on, and the final act features some unnecessary back and forth nighttime trips instigated by Lucy. Any actual parent at any intellectual level would have immediately clamped down on such nonsense. But here all actions stem from love and goodness, positive light allowed to overwhelm any hints of darkness.

All Ace Black Movie Blog reviews are here.

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