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'I Am Sam'

Emotional story of mentally challenged father is hard to resist

Friday, January 25, 2002

By Barbara Vancheri, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Yes, you could argue that "I Am Sam" is manipulative. So were "Kramer vs. Kramer" and "A Beautiful Mind." Yes, you could point out that leading man Sean Penn has to feign a disability. So did Tom Hanks, Dustin Hoffman, Leonardo DiCaprio and many others.

'I Am Sam'

RATING: PG-13 for language

STARRING: Sean Penn, Michelle Pfeiffer

DIRECTOR: Jessie Nelson

WEB SITE: iamsammovie.com


Additional coverage

An Interview with
Michelle Pfeiffer

'I Am Sam'


Yes, you could be leery of a movie that prompts critics to reach for the word "tearjerker," but in the end it's virtually impossible not to succumb to the naked emotion of "I Am Sam," its adorable child star, Penn's remarkable transformation and a soundtrack of Beatles songs covered by Sarah McLachlan, Aimee Mann-Michael Penn, the Wallflowers, Ben Folds, Eddie Vedder and a dozen other singers.

"I Am Sam" stars Penn as Sam Dawson, a man with the intellectual capacity of a 7-year-old who works as a busboy at Starbucks in Los Angeles. As the movie opens, he's rushing to the hospital where a previously homeless woman is giving birth to their child. He's awestruck by baby Lucy, named after "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds," but the mother is not. When they leave the hospital to catch a bus back to his apartment, she bolts.

He muddles through those early years of parenthood with help from a kindly agoraphobic neighbor and his circle of mentally challenged pals who meet regularly to watch videos or go to IHOP and the like. Lucy is a sweet, bright child who realizes, "You're not like other daddies," but she considers that a blessing.

Lucy's teachers, however, notice she's afraid to learn and therefore become more advanced than her father. That triggers the child-welfare system, which thrusts Sam into a bewildering world of courtrooms, lawyers, judges and foster homes.

It's only because a high-priced, high-strung lawyer named Rita Harrison (Michelle Pfeiffer) is trying to prove to colleagues that she accepts pro-bono cases that Sam gets her as his attorney. The movie, directed and co-written by Jessie Nelson, follows the way the case changes virtually everyone involved, especially Rita.

She's the sort of lawyer who, when Sam mentions that she made a witness cry, responds, "I got lucky." She and her husband live in a showplace that is not child-friendly -- they have a son, who seems like an afterthought to their very busy lives. Although Sam's IQ pales compared with Rita's, he is smarter and more observant in some ways.

To ride the "I Am Sam" wave, you must assume no one ever intervened in the Dawson household before this, or that there is no obvious solution for this atypical family. Still, if you quiet the logical side of your brain and indulge the other, emotional half, you will be sucked into this struggle for family, for keeping father and daughter together and for the unconventional friends who rally around them.

The supporting cast includes Dianne Wiest as Sam's neighbor, Richard Schiff as an attorney, Loretta Devine as a social worker, Laura Dern as a foster mother and Doug Hutchison as one of Sam's pals.

Penn retreats inward and, through haircut, manner of speech and physical movement, creates a man who appears mentally retarded with autistic tendencies. Pfeiffer has a showy role, the kind that allows her to live by cell phone and cans of Tab, to erupt and account for the PG-13 rated language and -- at one point -- to kick in a door. Dakota Fanning is remarkably assured and expressive as the lovable Lucy, who has just turned 8.

The ending reminded me of the conclusion of "The Object of My Affection" in which Jennifer Aniston played a pregnant social worker closer to her gay roommate than the father of her unborn child. It was calculated, politically correct and audience friendly.

In the case of "I Am Sam," though, I don't think I'd have it any other way. And with Beatles songs, no less.

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