Rated PG-13 - Running Time: 2:12 - Released 12/28/01

At first glance, Jessie Nelson's I Am Sam may seem like a sort of Rain Man part 2, investigating what would happen if a developmentally disabled person were to father a child. But Sean Penn's character, Sam Dawson, is markedly different from Dustin Hoffman's Raymond Babbitt in many ways. While Hoffman's character was autistic and/or obsessive/compulsive, Sam's disability is mainly mental retardation, with some autistic tendencies. Therefore, Penn's Sam is more outgoing and more able to function in society than Raymond was, and, as we learn early on, even able to father a child. Penn is superb in this film, co-written by director Nelson and Kristine Johnson, with his characterization so well defined that even devoted fans will not recognize him. He is supported by excellence all around, from Michelle Pfeiffer, who plays Sam's attorney, to Dianne Wiest as his loving and helpful neighbor, to the remarkable 7-year-old Dakota Fanning, whose characterization as Sam's daughter matches Penn's expertise at every step, allowing the two of them to build a relationship so touching and real it almost forgives the writers' manipulative dialogue, which is the only serious flaw in the film.

Sam works at Starbuck's coffee house, where he sweeps the floor, carries orders to customers, and carefully arranges sugar packets in their boxes. But the first time we see him is no ordinary day: his child is about to be born. When Sam goes to the hospital and sees his new daughter, he names her Lucy Diamond Dawson, after the song "Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds" (Sam is a devout Beatles fan). This is far from an idyllic picture of a young family, however; Lucy's mother, a homeless woman, disappears after being discharged, leaving him alone to raise the girl. Knowing nothing about baby maintenance, he enlists the help of his neighbor Annie (Wiest), a reclusive piano teacher, and is soon able to feed, change, and clothe Lucy, while keeping his job and his small circle of mentally disabled friends (Brad Allan Silverman, Joseph Rosenberg, Stanley DeSantis, Doug Hutchison), who meet every week to watch videos or eat at the International House Of Pancakes.

Next comes one of those sweet montages where the specifics are never really explained (set to various cover versions of Beatles' songs), during which time we watch Lucy, played by no fewer than seven young actresses, grow from infancy to age 4. She is seen playing, laughing, swinging, and reading and re-reading Green Eggs And Ham with her loving dad, never crying, never throwing a tantrum, and never getting her butt smacked. Finally we settle on Fanning as the 7-year-old Lucy, an irrepressibly cute, blonde-haired, blue-eyed beauty who is quite precocious for her age, which in itself sets up the main conflict of the film: what do you do when the child of a man whose mental capacity is that of a 7-year-old outgrows him? Lucy's schoolteachers can't help but notice that as she approaches age 8 she begins resisting their attempts to teach her, as if she's afraid to become smarter than her beloved and emotionally equal father. She is picked up by a social worker (Loretta Devine), who tells Sam that Lucy must be put in a foster home as he is not equipped to guide her through adolescence and young adulthood.

Encouraged by his well-meaning friends, Sam chooses to take the matter to court, seeking the legal advice of Rita Harrison (Pfeiffer) mainly because of the Beatle-significance of her name (Rita, like "Lovely Rita Metermaid" and Harrison, like George). At first unwilling, Rita is soon swept up in Sam's case, but must get through some of her own domestic and psychological problems in order to help him. Meanwhile, Lucy, who wants nothing more than to return to her co-dependent relationship with her dad, rebels against the change.

This film is like a showcase of good acting set to a showcase of good music (I've never heard so many Beatle covers since the Bee Gees starred in Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band), and it succeeds despite its writers' occasional emotional pandering and queer message. In a way, Nelson & co. seem to be saying that we are all like Sam, as almost every character has some momentous mental or psychological trouble to overcome. This is a fair enough message, but it is often taken to ridiculous extremes. Its ending takes the easy way out, bringing a happy but unrealistic resolution to the story. However, just watching Penn and Fanning interact, or Penn and Pfeiffer, or Penn and Laura Dern (who plays Lucy's foster mother), is worth wading through the occasionally ankle-deep syrup. ****

Copyright 2002 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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