I Am Sam
Screenplay : Kristine Johnson & Jessie Nelson
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2001
Stars : Sean Penn (Sam Dawson), Michelle Pfeiffer (Rita Harrison), Laura Dern (Randy Carpenter), Dakota Fanning (Lucy Diamond Dawson), Dianne Wiest (Annie), Joseph Rosenberg (Joe), Brad Allan Silverman (Brad), Richard Schiff (Turner), Stanley DeSantis (Robert)
"I may not be a smart man, but I know what love is," declared the titular simpleton of Forrest Gump (1994), and director/cowriter Jessie Nelson seems to have taken that line and decided to make an entire movie about it in I Am Sam, which tells the story of a mentally handicapped man fighting for his right to be a parent. The state of California has declared that, because he has the intellectual capacity of a 7-year-old, he is not a fit parent for his 7-year-old daughter, even though he has raised her to that point almost entirely by himself.
The man is named Sam Dawson, and he is played by Sean Penn in an utterly convincing manner. Cynics have dismissed his performance, especially after it was nominated for an Oscar, since it once again bolstered the all-too-true notion that the Academy is a sucker for nominating and awarding actors for playing handicapped roles. Penn is too good an actor to fumble here, and he brings to Sam a believably complex combination of the childish and the determined. As written, the role is meant to be another cloying handicapped-person-as-saint homily, with glowing humanity filling in the gap left by developmental retardation. Penn has an uphill battle here, and he doesn't always win, but he makes the role much more interesting and understandable than a lesser actor would have done.
Penn spends much of his time on-screen with Michelle Pfeiffer as Rita Harrison, a soulless, money-driven, Porsche-driving, high-price, highly caffeinated lawyer who ends up taking Sam's case pro bono just to spite the other lawyers in her law firm who see her for what she is. Pfeiffer has a tricky act to pull off here, since she is trapped in the role of the broken modern woman—too involved with her heartless career to pay attention to her young son—who must be redeemed by her association with Sam, the father who is perfect by dint of the perfection of his love for his daughter.
Pfeiffer has fun with the role in the early stages, as she plays Rita as frantic, distracted, and constantly on the move—her early reactions to Sam are both humorous and sad. Yet, as the movie progresses, her character learns to admit her faults and love like Sam does, and one might as well stamp the screen with "Message: Love your children" (or, to take a quote from a Beatles song that is quoted directly in the movie by Lucy, "All you need is love"). It's an important message, to be sure, but it's force-fed in a way that almost undermines our sympathy with Sam's plight because we begin to see it as little more than an avenue by which Rita can reset her priorities.
In all honesty, one the best performances in the movie comes from Dakota Fanning, who plays Sam's daughter, Lucy. Bright-eyed and blonde-haired, with an angelic face that is just this side of too-perfect, Fanning is a naturalistic child actor who avoids the saccharine and the sentimental—her reactions are dead-on, and she and Penn generate real warmth in their scenes together. They bring a human face to the contrived plotline, and the movie's best moments are when they are together.
And, if we're going to name the worst performance in the movie, it's not by someone on-screen, but rather by director Jessie Nelson behind the camera. In a case of attention-deficit-disorder-style filmmaking, Nelson consistently undermines every moment of honest drama by drawing undue attention to the camera. With more pointless zooms than an early John Waters movie and more jump cuts than all of Jean-Luc Godard's work combined, I Am Sam has a jittery, uneasy, and nearly headache-inducing visual style that does nothing to underline the narrative and everything to take away from it. Nelson doesn't seem to trust her actors, because she refuses to leave the camera still for a few seconds and let them hold the screen.
There are other problems throughout, as well. Some of the supporting characters are oddly introduced and never fully realized, including Dianne Wiest as a kindly shut-in who lives in Sam's apartment complex. I Am Sam also foregrounds its product placements a little too vociferously. Sam doesn't just work at various business, he works as Starbucks and Pizza Hut, and when it comes to going out to dinner, it's a real battle between the joys of the Rooty Tooty Fresh'n'Frooty breakfast at IHOP and the root beer floats at Big Boy's Burger. There is even one moment where an insert shot accomplishes nothing more than ensuring that we have an unobstructed view of the side of a bus plastered with a large Nike ad (little surprise, then, that Lucy's soccer team all prominently wear Nike uniforms at the end of the movie).
I Am Sam, although significantly better than Garry Marshall's embarrassing The Other Sister (1999), ultimately ends up being yet another notch in the argument that Hollywood is incapable of truly dealing with mentally handicapped characters in anything other than supporting roles. The movie gets at some of the joys and the frustration of dealing with Sam, an adult who has the mind of a child, but it always hedges its bet by giving us a thoroughly calculated story in which it can constantly remind us—at the expense of its better moments—that he also has the unblemished soul of a saint.
Copyright © 2002 James Kendrick