The Good: ACTING! Character and writing.
The Bad: Obvious Dichotomy set up, Plot gets nailed in.
The Basics: When the mentally retarded Sam gets into a custody battle for his daughter, a high-powered lawyer changes her whole life around the case in I Am Sam.
For a long time, it seemed all Sean Penn was truly associated with was Madonna and smacking around photographers. In recent years, he seems to have gained some respectability within the acting community and earned a name of his own. I Am Sam finally cuts all links to his early 80s history and establishes him undeniably as an actor of the highest caliber.
Sam is a mentally retarded man whose girlfriend leaves him immediately after giving birth to their daughter. Sam raises his daughter Lucy alone until around her seventh birthday, with the help of his neighbor, Annie. Lucy learns quickly that her father is different and her maturity helps keep the family balanced. However, when Sam gets into some minor problems with the law, Child Services steps in and works to have Lucy taken away. Sam hires the high-powered lawyer Rita Harrison to take his case and the fight of his - and Lucy's - life begins.
What sets I Am Sam apart from most films involving the mentally retarded is that the movie does an excellent job of providing a balanced view of the limitations and abilities of the retarded individual. Sam is not glorified as an exceptional parent. Indeed, to make her points on how inept any parent may be, Rita uses some underhanded lawyering against the prosecution's expert on parenting. Sam is portrayed as childlike and limited, but as a person of many moods, never falling into the cheap stereotype that all mentally retarded individuals are happy and simple.
On the other hand, Rita does come across as less faceted. She is very much an archetype of the power-lawyer with an obsession with money and the cold hard facts of the law. Instead of being sympathetic or empathetic, she is simply a force working for the emotional Sam - reluctantly, to begin with.
The real power of I Am Sam is in the acting. Sean Penn delivers magnificently as Sam. Indeed, it is often difficult to remember that Penn is not mentally retarded, so adeptly does he draw the viewer in with his performance. With an incredible range of facial expressions and body language, Penn articulates confusion, bewilderment and pure joy. His voice, similarly, uses the full spectrum of tone to convey the raw emotions Penn clearly emotes.
But the quality acting does not stop there. Michelle Pfeiffer does a magnificent job of creating an instantly unlikable character who the audience sees as an antagonist. Pfeiffer's performance reminds the viewer of their own indifference and forces us to accept that mentally retarded people are part of our society that many deal with simply through avoiding and containment. Pfeiffer's Rita is not afforded the luxury of simply being able to ignore Sam and in a similar way, the viewer is forced to endure the obstacles of Sam with her.
The real acting genius - besides Penn - is in the form of little Dakota Fanning. Fanning portrays Lucy with an acting brilliance that is uncommon in one so young. She emotes so much with her face and eyes that it is astonishing she is as young as she is. Fanning has a great future in acting if she wants it; her command of complex dialog and body language in I Am Sam are evidence of that.
What keeps the film from being perfect is that it often does feel like a glorified after-school special wherein the obvious disadvantages of a mentally retarded parent are hammered home repeatedly. What makes it worse is the somewhat predictable dichotomy between Sam and Rita wherein she teaches him a valuable lesson.
Still, the supporting cast gives great performances, notably Richard Schiff as the antagonistic lawyer Turner and the film comes across as something worthy of repeat viewings. If the worst thing one may say about a film is that it is heavy-handed about tolerance, is that truly a problem?
For other works with Rosalind Chao, be sure to visit my reviews of:
Six Feet Under - Season 5
Star Trek: Deep Space Nine
Star Trek: The Next Generation
For other movie reviews, please visit my index page on the subject by clicking here!
© 2012, 2003 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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