I Am Sam

USA/Germany 2001

Film still for I Am Sam

Reviewed by Andrew O'Hehir


Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists.

California, the present. A woman gives birth to a baby and abandons it to its father, a mentally retarded adult named Sam (Sean Penn). Sam names the girl Lucy (after the Beatles song 'Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds') and raises her for several years, with occasional advice from a reclusive female neighbour (Dianne Wiest). At the age of seven Lucy (Dakota Fanning) begins to behave badly at school. Her teachers and the child-welfare authorities become concerned that she has surpassed Sam's intellectual capacity and that he can no longer care for her. After Sam is charged with soliciting a prostitute and harassing another child - both incidents are misunderstandings - Lucy is taken away from him and placed in foster care.

His friends help him find a high-powered attorney, Rita Harrison (Michelle Pfeiffer), who after initial reluctance agrees to represent him without charge. Sam and Rita become friendly and he counsels her on her troubled marriage and her relationship with her young son. But Sam's behaviour remains erratic, his promotion to a new job in a coffee bar goes awry and the court case over Lucy's future goes against him. Rita convinces Sam not to give up, and he moves to a new apartment near Lucy's foster parents. Lucy begins to sneak out every night to visit him. Her foster mother Randy (Laura Dern) eventually realises that Lucy and Sam belong together.


How is one to make sense of a film whose execution is so drastically at odds with its apparent theme? Conceptually, I Am Sam seems both simple and familiar: one expects a sentimental yet unpretentious fable of simplicity and virtue, complete with a lesson about the complex humanity of disabled people, shot in a series of long takes and intimate, laconic scenes. Instead, co-writer and director Jessie Nelson (also the director of the 1994 Whoopi Goldberg vehicle Corrina, Corrina and one of the writers of Stepmom and The Story of Us) has made a jittery and uncomfortable film in which the courtroom scenes are edited to look like MTV videos. It has the smug feel of a Hollywood 'co-branded' product, foregrounding the logos of Starbucks, Pizza Hut and Target superstores and offering lengthy musical interludes to aid sales of its soundtrack (a collection of Beatles songs performed by contemporary hitmakers).

Yet for a movie whose professed manifesto is "all you need is love", I Am Sam virtually oozes rage and hostility. These emotions emerge primarily, although not exclusively, through the character I see as the film's real protagonist, Michelle Pfeiffer's stressed-out Rita, a family lawyer whose own family life is disintegrating. Possibly Rita was originally meant to be comic, but Pfeiffer plays her in a cold, overcaffeinated fury, cursing at other drivers on the Los Angeles boulevards, smashing office furniture, lying to her husband via mobile phone while she power-walks two dozen flights of stairs on her way to a meeting. We never meet her husband, who eventually moves out of the sterile loft space they inhabit, abandoning one of his expensive suits to Sam, the developmentally disabled man who has become Rita's client (and, of course, her salvation).

In fact, I Am Sam is virtually devoid of adult men, other than the semi-angelic Sam and his childlike friends; this seems to be Ernest Hemingway's universe in reverse. Laura Dern's Randy, the foster mother who battles Sam for custody of his daughter Lucy, evidently has a husband, whom we glimpse once. Neighbour Annie, who supplies Sam with child-rearing advice, has stayed indoors for decades because of an abusive father she can't even discuss. The only significant male character possessed of normal intelligence is the hostile lawyer Turner (Richard Schiff, from television's The West Wing), a small-minded tyrant who masks his sadism with the appearance of rectitude.

I am genuinely bewildered by the question of whether Sean Penn's Oscar-nominated collection of physical tics, clumsy behaviour and overly loud speech is good acting or not. Penn is one of the finest physical performers American movies has to offer, but Sam is a symbolic figure who bears little relation to an actual human being, disabled or otherwise. He arrives in Rita's life to save her from a loveless marriage and redeem her relationship with her son, but the film's narrative momentum towards a romance between Sam and Rita must of course be diverted. Rita disappears in the final scenes, in which Sam reclaims Lucy (Dakota Fanning, as one of those precocious, insightful, late-Dickens children Hollywood specialises in) and begins to forge a friendship with Randy, whom we have just met and know nothing about. Perhaps Sam's destiny is to be a Pied Piper who uses his daughter to lure unhappily married women into chaste midlife love affairs. If I Am Sam had anything coherent to say beyond its contradictory stew of anger, pain and crass commercialism, it might be that the only good men are those who stay seven years old forever.


Jessie Nelson
Jessie Nelson
Richard Solomon
Marshall Herskovitz
Edward Zwick
Kristine Johnson
Jessie Nelson
Director of Photography
Elliot Davis
Richard Chew
Production Designer
Aaron Osborne
John Powell
Last Updated: 20 Dec 2011