What defines a parent? Is it the amount of intellectual maturity displayed or the level of love given? Such is the question posed in I Am Sam.
In the film, Sam Dawson (Sean Penn) is a mentally challenged single father raising his daughter Lucy (Dakota Fanning). Sam is a sweet, good-natured man who earns a living by sweeping up at a local coffee store. His mental capacity is that of a seven-year-old, and as his daughter turns seven, she begins to intellectually outgrow her father. Soon, their lives come under the scrutiny of a social worker, who, "for the good of the child," wants Lucy placed into foster care.
Faced with a nearly impossible-to-win case, Sam decides to fight the legal system by finding a good attorney. Sam has learned from television that all the best attorneys have four names, so with the help of his equally mentally disabled friends, they use a phone book to find a long-named, high-powered lawyer (Michelle Pfeiffer) who ends up taking Sam's case at no charge on a dare. Together, they struggle to convince the system that Sam deserves to get his daughter back.
Writer/director Jessie Nelson, whose previous writing credits include The Story of Us and Stepmom, opts to flex some creative muscle with her first directing credit by shooting almost the entire film using hand-held cameras. This technique can work to give the viewer a more subjective sense of participation with the film. However, when overdone, it becomes distracting. For the most part, Nelson is able to keep this style in check, but there occasionally the jerky NYPD Blue style zooms made me more dizzy than engrossed.
In the film, Sam names his daughter Lucy Diamond after the Beatles song "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds," and he possesses an almost Rain Man-like knowledge of Beatles trivia. Naturally, the Beatles play a prominent role in the soundtrack, but because of rights issues, the music is comprised of contemporary artists doing their own renditions of Beatles classics. The resulting soundtrack -- performed by artists such as Sheryl Crow, Ben Harper, and Sarah MacLachlan -- is definitely worth picking up if you're a fan of the Fab Four.
There are many great acting performances in this film, but the shining star is without a doubt Sean Penn. In order to ensure he was true to the character, Penn spent time with the Los Angeles-based L.A. Goal, a non-profit organization that helps adults with developmental disabilities. The result is an astounding performance that clearly shows Penn's dedication to the art of acting. His work is honest, insightful, and compassionate, and it may very well be the film that finally gets Penn that shining gold statuette he rightly deserves.
Plenty of extras on the DVD for I Am Sam, and if you can stomach Penn's hamminess in the movie, you might enjoy the extra scenes of Sam, say, counting down the floors of a descending elevator or dancing or telling knock-knock jokes. As well, a feature commentary is unable to excuse the nauseating "verite" style filmmaking that saddles the film.
See Sam hug.