There are two schools of thought when it comes to making a successful film. One side says that film should reflect life the way it is, including both joy and pain. The other believes films are not as life is but how we wish life was.
I am Sam follows the latter tradition.
During a sneak screening of I am Sam, an audience member with mental retardation broke out in applause. The film, starring Sean Penn in the title role, champions the efforts of a man with the mental capacity of a seven year old who tries to retain parental rights despite his disability. While Penn and the rest of the cast members handle the story with sensitivity and excel in their respective roles, I am Sam ultimately paints an unrealistic view of a human condition, when all the while it is attempting to tell a truthful human story.
The film is meant to be heart warming. It is designed to entertain. On these basic levels, Sam achieves success. However, on a deeper level it insults and humiliates the audience member who walks out singing the theme song, “All You Need is Love.”
Everything excites Sam. He is always smiling and loves reading Green Eggs and Ham. But he gets a wake-up call one day, when his 6-year-old daughter Lucy (Dakota Fanning) tells him she needs to go to sleep because she doesn’t want to be tired for her first day at school.
Through a quick-cutting time progression sequence that begins with Lucy’s mother leaving Sam and her by the bus stop to the day the daughter outgrows the parent, what makes the story compelling is the final step happens when the daughter is about to turn seven.
We see Sam have difficulties, such as a scene in which he has trouble buying Lucy shoes because he is $10 short of a $16 bill. Luckily, his autistic and paranoid friends shell out the remaining cash. When he can’t get his baby to stop crying, he asks his shut-in neighbor Annie (Dianne Wiest) for a hand. These supporting characters are the groundwork for a support system that will help Sam raise Lucy one day.
The problem isn’t that we like Sam – who wouldn’t? – but rather that we want to believe that he can succeed on his own. His wide-eyed innocence and larger than life love for his daughter are admirable traits. But are they enough to raise a 7-year-old girl?The conflict comes when the local child welfare services tries to make a case that Lucy needs more. And while the film depicts the opposing lawyers as vultures out for Sam’s blood, a thought creeps in the back of your mind that maybe they’re right. Maybe Sam isn’t mentally fit to be a father.
But that isn’t the point of the film. After all, all you need is love. At least that is what Sam’s lawyer, Rita (Michelle Pfeiffer), tries to convince the judge and ultimately the audience.
Fortunately, no one dies in Sam’s attempts, and no one gets physically hurt. Instead, the film tugs at the heartstrings of the audience by showing the simple act of a father and daughter hugging.
I am Sam reminds us how lucky most of us are that we were not born with mental retardation. But it also opens our eyes to the real-life struggle that some people endure and shows that there are advantages to that life and sometimes beauty.
At its core, Sam is a statement film. To its fault, its sappy resolution is unrealistic and only exists in a perfect world.Penn came dangerously close to using this role as a self-indulgent ploy, but ended up proving once again why he is considered one of best actors working in film today. Pfeiffer shows range in her compassionate lawyer role, which at one point is cold-hearted, but turns to putty after befriending Sam. But the shining star of the film is Fanning as Lucy. The young actress shows strength and maturity in the role of a child, whose intelligence unwillingly surpasses that of the man she loves more than anything in the world.
It’s just a shame these performances were simply used to tell a story that was more focused on providing a happy ending than a realistic one.
- I am Sam is Rated PG-13
- Contact William Albritton at firstname.lastname@example.org