I Am Sam

It is extremely hard to seriously depict mental health issues in film without making it seem like the film is mocking in tone. A Beautiful Mind delicately portrayed paranoid schizophrenia by showing what the patient 'saw,' and now I Am Sam attempts to tell a story with a mentally retarded protagonist. This is an odd turn for Sean Penn, known for being extremely picky about his roles. Penn (Up at the Villa, Before Night Falls) is more likely these days to direct (The Pledge, The Crossing Guard) rather than act, and all of his choices tend to be serious, weighty matters. His role here as Sam Dawson is challenging, but unabashedly sentimental. I Am Sam is a shameless heart tugger, manipulatively controlling viewers to cry in sympathy. This is not always a bad thing, but I Am Sam forgoes temperance in lieu of an all-out hanky attack.

Sam is raising his young daughter Lucy Diamond (Dakota Fanning, Tomcats) single-handedly, after her mother left him. He has the mental capacity of a seven-year old, which may be a problem now that Lucy is seven. A social worker feels that Lucy is holding herself back in school, fearful of surpassing her father. All Sam knows is that he loves Lucy, so he doesn't understand why the court is taking Lucy away from him. Rita Harrison (Michelle Pfeiffer, What Lies Beneath, The Story of Us) is Sam's lawyer. His friends found her by looking for the largest ad in the yellow pages. She works for an expensive law firm, but was shamed into taking his case pro bono. In true television/film court drama fashion (hey, Pfeiffer is married to David E. Kelley of The Practice and Ally McBeal), Rita has a problem with her son. The only way to fix it is through working with Sam. Sam's love for Lucy will break through the barrier Rita built around herself. She immerses herself in her career, to the detriment of her family life.

Sean Penn's performance is remarkable. He ably and accurately portrays a mentally challenged individual without resorting to exploiting the role. Sam knows how to love, and it seems not much else. It is his love for Lucy that keeps him going. Writer/director Jessie Nelson (Corrina, Corrina, To the Moon, Alice) and co-writer Kristine Johnson (Imaginary Crimes) milk the cute factor with Fanning. Fanning fares surprisingly well, due to a combination of a good performance and a script that paints Lucy as extremely precocious. She has knowledge beyond her years, and a habit of referencing Beatles music with her father. The constant cutesy references and a constant score of Beatles remakes becomes grating after a while. I Am Sam ultimately falls into the trap that many movies like this do; it reaches too hard to evoke an emotional response from the audience. Instead of sympathy, the movie begins to evoke groans. Yes, it is sweet, but a little too sweet.

Haro Rates It: Not Bad.
2 hours, 12 minutes, Rated PG-13 for language.

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