"I Am Sam" is a warm, hard-to-resist story of a mentally challenged single father fighting to retain custody of his 7-year-old daughter. It's the kind of skilled heart-tugger that opens at this time of year, both to qualify for the Oscars--Sean Penn as the father and Michelle Pfeiffer as his attorney are particularly of note--and to attract holiday moviegoers.
There's more to this movie, however. It's an instance in which a sure-fire premise has been well developed by director Jessie Nelson and her co-writer Kristine Johnson. Hollywood gloss--gleaming cinematography, superior production design, etc.--has been put to good use by Nelson to illuminate not only the lives of Penn's Sam Dawson and Pfeiffer's Rita, but also many others.
"I Am Sam" is a most inviting and accessible film that turns upon a mental condition that most people would prefer not to think about.
The kindly Sam had given shelter to a young homeless woman who had not bargained on becoming a mother as a result. She disappears swiftly after giving birth to a baby girl, whom Sam names Lucy, after the Beatles' song "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds." (Sam is fixated on the Beatles, and the film makes wonderful use of numerous Beatles tunes.)
Sam has worked for eight years as a Starbucks busboy. He has a sunny, outgoing personality, a circle of mentally challenged friends and a neighbor, Annie (Dianne Wiest), an agoraphobic pianist, he can rely on. She's a warm, wise woman whose affliction means she's always home to keep an eye on Lucy (Dakota Fanning). Sam's unconditional love for his daughter and solid support system allow him to be an exceptionally good father.
All goes well until Lucy reaches 7, the level of Sam's mental capacity, and she starts surpassing his limited intellect and begins to resist learning so as not to outstrip her beloved parent. At this time, Sam, unaware that he is being approached by a prostitute, is arrested for soliciting. Charges are swiftly dropped, but not before a conscientious social worker, Margaret (Loretta Devine), takes note of Sam's mental limitations and immediately decides Sam is an unfit father.
Sam and his pals collectively grasp that he needs the best legal talent available to ensure his custody of Lucy, and they pick out the law firm with the longest name in the Yellow Pages. Sam zeroes in on one of the partners, the hard-driving, hot-tempered, self-absorbed Rita (Pfeiffer), who ends up taking on Sam's case pro bono to save face with her colleagues.
All this is prologue to Sam's big battle to hold onto Lucy, and at this point the film begins to resemble "Rain Man" in terms of Rita's relationship with Sam. While Sam emerges with a greater sense of self-worth and self-reliance, it is Rita, like Tom Cruise's brother to Dustin Hoffman's autistic savant, who evolves. In Sam's loving relationship with Lucy, Rita is forced to see how badly she has failed her own young son. (As for her husband, we never even see him, so badly has their marriage crumbled.)
There are, however, a lot of people that Sam has to persuade that he will be as good a parent in the future as he has been up to now. Opposing Rita in court is Turner (Richard Schiff), easily as smart as she is, who firmly believes Sam is not the best parent for Lucy, and Randy (Laura Dern), Lucy's court-appointed foster mother, eager to adopt the child and unquestioningly confident of her ability to be a better parent than Sam.
In its unfolding, "I Am Sam" suggests how everyone is damaged in one way or another and how it behooves us all to look inward before judging the abilities and limitations of others. These sentiments emerge implicitly, for "I Am Sam" thankfully avoids the sententious.
The characters have been written with much dimension, insight and nuance, and they have been brought to life by a cast that possesses the same qualities. Little Fanning, to her credit, makes Lucy seem bright but not bratty or unduly precocious. Penn brings to Sam the absolute conviction the role--and the film itself--requires if it is to work. His Sam never seems stupid, but rather a man who constantly battles his intellectual limitations. Penn's portrayal of Sam will no doubt attract wide attention and acclaim, all of it richly deserved. It would be a shame, however, if it would overshadow Pfeiffer's contribution (which is what tended to happen with Cruise's performance in "Rain Man"). If it is no mean feat to give a sustained portrayal of an affliction, which must demand formidable powers of concentration, it is perhaps even more challenging to make persuasive a radical transformation in character, involving a profound redemption of spirit. This is what Pfeiffer brings to "I Am Sam.""I Am Sam" is a handsome film, with a glamorous Pfeiffer wearing a lot of Armani power suits. Its most distinctive aspect is John Powell's unusual score, which, instead of the usual hearts-and-flowers sentimentality that accompanies such films, remains vital and upbeat. It's a big plus in setting a crisp tone for the film and in undercutting the tear-jerking.
MPAA rating: PG-13, for language. Times guidelines: Suitable family entertainment, but some emotionally wrenching moments may be difficult for younger viewers.
'I Am Sam'
Sean Penn...Sam Dawson
A New Line Cinema presentation of a Bedford Falls Company/Red Fish, Blue Fish Films production. Director Jessie Nelson. Producers Marshall Herskovitz, Edward Zwick. Executive producers Claire Rudnick Polstein, Michael De Luca, David Scott Rubin. Screenplay Kristine Johnson & Nelson. Cinematographer Elliot Davis. Editor Richard Chew. Music John Powell. Costumes Susie De Santo. Michelle Pfeiffer's clothing provided by Giorgio Armani. Production designer Aaron Osborne. Art director Erin Cochran. Set designers Stephanie J. Gordon, Glenn Rivers. Set decorator Jennifer Gentile. Running time: 2 hours, 13 minutes.
Exclusively at AMC Century 14 through Thursday, 10250 Santa Monica Blvd., Century City Shopping Center, (310) 553-8900.