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I Am SamUSA 2001
Directed by Jessie Nelson
Running time 132 minutes
Although this film is far too long with its last quarter a self-indulgent mess I Am Sam doesn’t entirely deserve the critical drubbing it received in its day (as well as pretty consistently since). Yes, it is the kind of film that plays mercilessly on its audience's heart-strings but it is also a film that commendably addresses the importance of love of all kinds in giving real substance to life.
Joining the likes of Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man (1988) and Robert De Niro in Awakenings (1990), Sean Penn plays Sam Dawson, a mentally-challenged man with the IQ of a 7-year-old and a daughter, Lucy Diamond Dawson (Dakota Fanning), he somehow managed to father with a homeless woman who abandons them both virtually at the child's birth. We cut from this set-up via a quick montage to six years later and Lucy has outstripped her father intellectually and Sam’s capabilities as a single parent is being question by Lucy’s school with social welfare stepping in and trying to take Lucy away from him. Advised by his friends that he needs to get a lawyer he approaches Rita Harrison (Michelle Pfeiffer) a careerist who despite initially dismissing him eventually takes on Sam's case on a pro bono basis.
Yes it’s a far-fetched yarn but since when has Hollywood been given to showing life as it really is? Why this film was singled out for its lack of credibilty (most reviewers sided with social welfare) and emotional manipulativeness is a mystery. For my money, compared to Hoffman and De Niro ( I am leaving aside Tom Hanks in Forrest Gump (1994) or Peter Sellers in Being There (1979) as they were not purporting to show actual mental conditions) Penn gives the best “handicapped person” celebrity turn if only because he is on screen virtually all the time and never misses a beat. Sure, one can say playing this kind of role is easy but Penn is always convincing (which can’t always be said of his disabled friends Ifty (Doug Hutchison) and Robert (Stanley DeSantis). Dakota Fanning, who would go on to become one of Hollywood’s leading child actors, is marvellous as bright-as-a-button Lucy, Dianne Wiest is quite perfect in a small role as Sam’s neighbour and Pfieffer, albeit improbably gorgeous, is entertaining as the harried lawyer. The use of Beatle's songs re-interpreted by the likes of The Black Crowes, Eddie Vedder and The Wallflowers, amongst others, is also very effective.
But if the performances are all strong this is only because they have some good material to work with. Writers Kristine Johnson and Jessie Nelson, the latter also directing, have some worthwhile things to say about what is really important in life, things of which welfare officers, departmental lawyers and court-appointed psychologists infamously know nothing. One could with justice accuse the film of tear-jerking but this is only because it depicts something which we wish were true and thereby has some measure of truth, the writers not simply milking the sentiment (in one of the funniest scenes, Sam gives what appears to be a spontaneously heart-felt speech only for it to turn out to be a quotation from Kramer vs Kramer) but looking at it from a variety of angles.
Unfortunately the film peak around the 90 minute mark but as this means Lucy and Sam being separated, Johnson and Nelson feel obliged to give us a happy ending and that takes another 30 - 40 minutes of effectively pointless meandering with Pfieffer breaking-down, Laura Dern turning up as an adoptive mother and a surfeit of Sam and his autistic idiosyncracies. Wishful thinking is one thing but poor artistic choices are another and these are about as bad as they get.