Turn Back the Clock
I Am Sam
Distributed by New Line Cinema
Reviewed by Melissa Minners
Iím not a huge fan of Sean Penn the man, but as an actor, Penn is amazing. My favorite Sean Penn film is the movie I Am Sam in which Penn plays a developmentally disabled man trying to maintain custody of his daughter. The film also stars Dakota Fanning in her breakout role, Dianne Wiest and Michelle Pfeiffer. I can watch this film a million times and still feel moved by it each and every time.
In I Am Sam, Sean Penn is Sam Dawson, a man whose IQ is equal to a seven-year-old child. Yet, Sam is no slacker, working hard at his job at the local Starbucks. A kind-hearted soul, Sam offers a woman a place to stay and the two have relations, resulting in a baby named Lucy. Lucyís mother wants nothing to do with her, leaving the moment they are discharged from the hospital, but Sam is enamored with his daughter and is willing to do everything to keep her safe.
Sam is lucky enough to have a terrific support system in his agoraphobic neighbor Annie, a talented musician who knows a thing or two about babies and a whole lot about The Beatles. He also gets help form his other friends who are also developmentally disabled, but at varying stages, some higher functioning than Sam. Although Sam is doing a great job raising Lucy, itís not easy. As Lucy gets older, she begins to realize that her father is different from others. At times, it makes her feel special to have a loving father like Sam who is different, but at other times, she is embarrassed. And then there is the added stress that she might surpass her father and become smarter than he is.
After an incident at her birthday party involving another child, Childrenís Services takes custody of Lucy, sending her to a foster home. Samís friends point him in the direction of a high-powered lawyer named Rita Harrison. Though she has a reputation of being difficult, brusque and cold, Rita surprises everyone, including herself, by taking Samís case pro bono. While working to fight for Samís parental rights, Rita finds that Sam is actually helping her just as much with her own home life, consisting of a cheating husband and a son who thinks he is unwanted.
Sam wants the best for his daughter and he soon realizes that people may be right. Maybe Lucy would have a better life with foster mom Randy Carpenter who wants to adopt her. Sam finds an apartment closer to Lucy and gets better jobs to supplement his income. Can Rita convince Sam to keep fighting for the one being he loves more than anything in life?
I Am Sam is an endearing story that accurately portrays the obstacles faced by developmentally disabled parents of ďnormalĒ children. Sean Pennís depiction of Sam Dawson is amazing. He is totally transformed into someone we vaguely recognize Ė Penn did his homework for this role, changing his speech patterns, the way he walks, even the way he stands and moves his hands in an effort to portray his role with more believability. And, as Sam points out, he may not be as smart as Lucy in some things, but in other things, he knows more. At her age, Lucy would only know what has been taught her. She would not have learned street smarts, she would not always know what to do in situations that Sam has already encountered over the years. Sam is not completely unrealistic Ė he knows he needs help, but in reality, a child is not raised by one single person. As the saying goes, it takes a village to raise a child.
In addition to Sean Penn, there are plenty others who deserve great praise for their roles in the film. Michelle Pfieffer seems to portray emotionally frazzled roles well and her role as Rita Harrison is no different. She somehow finds a way to make the audience believe she is getting more out of her relationship with Sam than he is getting out of it. Her frazzled behavior is often due to her home situation and Rita finds herself marveling at Samís simplistic, yet spot-on, view of her problems. Dakota Fanning in 2001, at seven years of age, offers a hint at the amazing actress she would eventually become. She is entirely believable as Lucy and suitably precocious and loveable.
Also worth mentioning are Dianne Wiest as Annie Cassell, Samís agoraphobic neighbor and mentor; Laura Dern as Randy Carpenter, Robert Schiff who makes the audience hate him as Mr. Turner, the lawyer for the other side; and Doug Hutchison, Stanley DeSantis, Joseph Rosenberg and Brad Silverman as Samís well-meaning developmentally disabled friends who often add some small bits of humor to an otherwise dramatic film.
The music of the film features cover versions of songs by Samís favorite artists Ė The Beatles. Performed by such well-known artists as the Black Crowes, Eddie Vedder, Sheryl Crow, Sarah McLachlan, the Wallfowers, the Vines, Ben Folds and more, the soundtrack contains some of the most popular and meaningful songs by The Beatles like I'm Looking Through You, Dont Let Me Down, Here Comes the Sun, Nowhere Man, Help!, Revolution, Let It Be, You've Got to Hide Your Love Away, Across the Universe and more. Most importantly is the inclusion of Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, the inspiration for Lucy Dawsonís name.
I Am Sam is a sad, but uplifting story whose message is clear Ė Sam may be seen as being handicapped, but he is still able to provide a loving home for his daughter. Sure, he needs help to give Lucy everything he believes she deserves, but what parent doesnít need help raising their child. Iíve watched this movie over a dozen times and it never gets old. I highly recommend itÖjust keep some tissues nearby Ė this movie could wring tears out of the most ornery curmudgeon out there.