I Am Sam
M O V I E   R E V I E W   B Y   C R I S S A - J E A N   C H A P P E L L

Sam loves The Beatles, French pancakes from IHOP, and reading Dr. Seuss' "Green Eggs and Ham" out loud to his little girl. As Sam, Sean Penn speaks in tight, toneless clumps, punctuated by bursts of childlike glee. He claps his hands and pounds every available surface, drumming out a beat to a song only he can hear. He's strapped into his Starbucks apron, color-coordinating the sugar packets. He barks at customers, "That's an excellent choice," whether their ice-frappucino is tall or grande, and we wonder why the world is different for him.

Unfortunately, we never get to know what's churning inside his head. How could a mentally-challenged man raise a seven-year-old daughter who has grown wise beyond her years? In I Am Sam, writer-director Jessie Nelson (who has helmed Stepmom and The Story of Us) uses whirling, handheld cameras, close-ups, whip pans, and staccato jump cuts to mimic Sam's bewildered point of view. But she shies away from the material, ignoring the tough questions and cranking up the homogenous soundtrack (infused with folksy covers of the Fab Four's greatest hits) and cuts to another sun-drenched, slow-motion montage of Sam and his adorable tow-headed tot swaying on the swings. I Am Sam, like a tear-jerking TV movie (or worse, the Hallmark commercials that accompany them), would have us believe that fatherhood is an afternoon at the park and "all you need is love."

Despite his good intentions, Sam lacks the capacity to raise a baby girl into a grown woman. What happens when Lucy (Dakota Fanning), his preternaturally brilliant daughter, learns to say, "No"--and says it again and again? The film would rather dwell on the idyllic aspects of child-raising than contend with tougher issues. Sam's fatherly duties don't stop at diaper-changing. He connects so easily with a child's mind, but for the rest of his life, he will be responsible for someone other than himself--and that someone will grow and change

To position Sam as a single father, the shameless film rushes through the set-up for the sake of convenience. We see wide-eyed Sam admiring his wrinkly pink baby. After leaving the hospital, the anonymous mother flees into the crowd, never to be heard from again. In ten minutes, the predictable narrative's wobbly foundation is pasted together, skirting details to avoid close inspection. "All I wanted was a place to sleep," were the homeless woman's last words. If she had stuck around, this sudsy movie might've taken a different turn.

Nelson fast-forwards into the future. Now Sam, like his daughter, has a mental age of seven. If the child welfare officials worry about what will happen when she turns eight, does this mean that a seven-year-old makes a perfectly acceptable parent? It's difficult enough for Sam to survive on his own. Luckily, he has an agoraphobic neighbor (Diane Wiest) to dispense occasional advice from her window, marking the baby's feeding schedule to Nick at Nite programming. Apparently, that's all he needs for seven years. Lucy (whose middle name is Diamond) decides to quit doing her homework so she won't vault ahead of her dad. "I don't want to read if you can't," she tells him. The formula-ridden script (co-written by Kristine Johnson) has fashioned Lucy to appear smarter than Sam, as well as most of the grown-ups. She's so precocious, she doesn't seem human. "Did God mean for you to be like this? Or was it an accident?" Lucy asks Sam one day. "What do you mean?" he replies. "You're not like other people," she says. Sam begins to apologize. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry," he repeats. "It's okay, Daddy, don't be sorry," Lucy assures him. "I'm lucky. Nobody else's daddy ever comes to the park." In one scene, Sam, upset by a change in his routine, pitches a fit in a burger joint. Instead of following the problem to its conclusion, Nelson cuts away, leaving us wondering how Lucy handled the outburst. The rest of the movie marches forward with a similar hackneyed logic, pushing buttons and moving on.

It's only a matter of time before Sam makes a major boo-boo and attracts the attention of authorities. A misunderstanding lands him in trouble and Lucy is whisked away without a goodbye. Sam knows he needs a lawyer, so he thumbs through the Yellow Pages. The slickest ad leads him to the hard-edged, Beverly Hills lawyer Rita Harrison (Michelle Pfeiffer, continuing the Beatles double-references). Of course, her fast-paced lifestyle prevents her from being a hands-on parent like Sam. Her gleaming fašade conceals a crumbling marriage and a strained relationship with her son. Rita takes the case to stifle jibes from her cynical co-workers by claiming she's his pro bono attorney. "That's for free," she tells him.

The spiritual changes in the movie belong to Rita. By the end of the film, she is supposed to learn a little patience (think 1988's Rain Man). But her role is so stereotypical and poorly contrived that we can't take it seriously. Even a high-profile cast can't salvage this clumsy, sugar-coated script. Problems fade away with no explanation and doubts are ignored. However, it succeeds in proving that Sam makes a loving father. I Am Sam isn't about the failures of the legal system. It's about the tragedy of Sam's predicament.

[rating: 2 of 4 stars]

Distributor Web site: New Line Cinema
Movie Web site: I Am Sam



Photo credits: © 2002 New Line Cinema. All rights reserved.