I Am Sam
Director: Jessie Nelson
Writer(s): Kristine Johnson, Jessie Nelson
Category: Drama
Runtime: 132 min
Country: USA
Language: English
Year: 2001
Tagline: love is all you need

Plot: Sam (Sean Penn) is a grown man with the mental capacity of a 7-year-old. After fathering a child with a homeless woman, Sam raises the baby himself until an incident at a birthday party finds the Child Protective Services deeming him an unfit guardian. With the help of yuppie lawyer Michelle Pfeiffer, Sam attempts to regain custody of his daughter and prove that, despite his handicap, he’s a truly loving father.

Review: Better have a box of Kleenex for this one. I saw this movie the same weekend that I saw John Q and I have to say that this was on the exact opposite end of the spectrum even though it’s in the same genre! How is it on the opposite? Simply put, the emotions that it illicit are genuine.

Just from reading the plot above, I think it’s fair to say that that there is a high chance that this movie could be a simple sob story that goes for the cliche in order to get you to cry. That NEVER happens in this film. Every emotion, although sometimes gut wrenching, is elicited genuinely from the actors and the story. I should also mention that I grew up next door to a mentally challenged neighbor, so I have had experience with the subject. Although Sam is clearly at the upper end of the spectrum in terms of mental deficiency, Penn nails the role and I think it’s one of the best performances of his life. Playing the role of a retarded person is not easy. It’s not just a matter of talking funny, or acting stupid – Penn clearly illustrates that fact. Not to mention that he’s able to hold the screen acting opposite a child and 5 dogs!

In conjunction with Penn’s performance, the writing is truly incredible. It’s realistic and doesn’t portray any of the characters as caricatures of themselves. Richard Schiff, for example, could have been portrayed as simply “the bad guy” in his role as Turner, State’s Attorney. It would have been an easy choice for the writer’s to make and unfortunately, it’s a choice that many movies tend to make. Instead, Turner is portrayed as someone doing his job and looking out for the best interests of the child. Although it’s one of the more minor roles of the film, the fact that none of characters were “throw away” just goes to how how well the script was written.

One other element that is often overlooked is the cinematography. Elliot Davis really gives this movie a unique style and feel in his photography and actually plays a role in telling the story. As the color pallets change for the perspective it makes it easier to tell where the perspective has changed as well. One of my favorite scenes involves the Sam in the courtroom and Davis’ use of 4 cameras to capture the scene coupled with Richard Chew’s editing makes that scene so compelling.

Lastly, I have to mention the performances given by the lead women in the cast. Michelle Pfeiffer, who plays Sam’s lawyer Rita Harrison, gives one of her best performances in her career. The arc that she is able to take her character is not easy. She goes from being someone who has very little in the way of redeeming qualities to someone you can deeply care for. She really stretched herself in this role and took some chances that pay off in spades. And last, but not least, Dakota Fanning plays Sam’s daughter Lucy. I haven’t seen Dakota in any other films yet, but now I want to. Although playing a child, when you’re a child isn’t much of a stretch, having to play a child that understands the mentally challenged is. The script gives her everything she needs for the scene, but Dakota has to deliver it and she does. Her talent is well beyond her years and the emotion she is able to convey through her eyes and in her reactions to other characters is truly impressive. Her role could have been the weak link that brought the movie to a much lower level, but she proved to be one of it’s anchors.

Make no mistake about it, this is a tear jerker, but in the best sense of the word. It’s an honest look at a unique situation that shows us many facets and pulls no punches.

My Rating: 5 Stars (5 out of 5 stars)
My IMDB Review: [link]