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I Am Sam (2001)

  Starring: Laura Dern, Dakota Fanning, Sean Penn, Michelle Pfeiffer, Richard Schiff, Dianne Wiest
Links: I Am Sam on the IMDb, Official site, Buy the Soundtrack, Buy on DVD, Buy on Video
Genre: Drama

This movie gets: 7.00 (2 ratings) Ranking: Ranked equal 104th of 187 movies (2 ratings minimum; see full chart)

I Am Sam (2001) is also mentioned in pearly's review of Man on Fire (2004) and pearly's review of War of the Worlds (2005).

"Saved by good performances" - a review by mino

Playing someone who is disabled, or at least 'different' in some way, has always been acknowledged as the easiest route to Oscar success. It worked for Rain Man (1988); it worked for My Left Foot (1989); it worked for Forrest Gump (1994) and As Good As It Gets (1997) and Scent of a Woman (1992), and many others. In the case of I Am Sam, it didn't quite work. But maybe it should have.

I mean, playing a mentally disabled person is like shooting fish in a barrel for any good actor. And Sean Penn is one of those actors who at first glance seems… well, lightweight; but then you look back on his career and realise that he is actually a pretty damn fine actor. His portrayal of Sam Dawson, a Beatles-obsessed retarded man working hard to hold down a job at a Starbuck's to support his seven-year-old daughter, Lucy, is no exception. Penn really makes you feel for Sam: his performance is full of emotion, and really softened the heart of even this admittedly cynicaly reviewer. Maybe he should have taken home an Oscar this year; he certainly couldn't have been too far off.

When Sam's daughter is removed from his care by the government, he is understandably heartbroken. He decides that he will stop at nothing to get her back, and after some cajoling, manages to enlist the services of hotshot lawyer Rita Harrison (Michelle Pfeiffer). A predictably tear-jerking court case, needless to say, ensues.

I Am Sam makes no apologies for what it is. It is a movie shamelessly designed as a 'weepie', and (quite rightly) makes no bones about it. Sam is built up as a sort of anti-hero, and we cheer him on all the way. There are many much deeper issues which remain almost untouched: there is a brief insight into the motives of the government lawyer trying to prevent Sam regaining custody (brilliantly played by The West Wing's Richard Schiff), but it's all too brief: I would have liked a little less raw emotion and a little more examination of these sorts of issues. I mean, the idea of a profoundly intellectually disabled man looking after a little girl really isn't as clear-cut as the makers of I Am Sam would like us to think.

Simplistic treatment aside, some great performances drag I Am Sam up from being just another chick-flick. I have little time for Pfeiffer; Laura Dern, as Lucy's temporary foster-mother, is another one I don't really like (though I am willing to concede she is much better here than she usually is). I was very impressed, though, by Dakota Fanning, who plays Lucy. I am a long-time critic of the sort of child actors Hollywood usually employs; I mean, I know that it's not easy for a little kid to be a great actor, but the sort of sickly-sweet hammy overacting employed by the likes of Haley Joel Osment has always irritated me. It is, however, a delight to see a truly great child actor: Fanning is a great example of this rare breed. I can't wait to see her in something else.

I Am Sam is at least a five-Kleenex movie. I mean, for what it is, it's really quite good. If you feel like having a good cry (something that, apparently, those of us not blessed with y-chromosomes seem to actually enjoy, for some reason), then you can do a lot worse. Even if you're a beer-fuelled testosterone-machine, see it for Penn's and Fanning's performances. They really do make the movie.

mino gives this movie 7 out of 10.
Review created on Sun 4 Aug 2002

"A touching movie that oversimplifies the issues" - a review by pearly

I Am Sam is the story of Sam Dawson (Sean Penn), a slightly autistic man who becomes a single father the day his daughter Lucy Diamond (Dakota Fanning) is born and her mother disappears. There are two things that Sam loves. The first is Lucy, and the second is The Beatles (Lucy is named after Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds). But, when Lucy turns seven, she and Sam have the same mental age, and officials begin to question his ability to look after her.

This is a touching story. It shows that every person is smart in their own way, that there are more important things than intelligence when it comes to parenting, and that everyone has flaws. It also has a great soundtrack, made up of covers of Beatles' tunes.

Sean Penn does a wonderful job in a fairly difficult role - both his character and those of his friends are reminiscent of Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man (1988) (it would probably be very difficult to play this type of role without being compared to Hoffman's outstanding performance).

Dakota Fanning is absolutely gorgeous as Sam's daughter Lucy. She simply lights up the screen, and is a superb child actor (interestingly, her sister, Elle Fanning, plays a younger version of her).

However, this movie isn't perfect. Firstly, there was the moment where Sam and his lawyer Rita (played by Michelle Pfeiffer) have something nearing a romantic moment (when Sam puts on Rita's husband's suit). That just wasn't necessary. I was almost believing that such a horrible person as Rita was able to undergo the transformation she did just by hanging out with Sam and Lucy. But that moment took it too far.

Secondly, it tries so incredibly hard to convince the audience that Sam should be able to look after Lucy on his own, that it's almost emotional blackmail. However, without wanting to sound harsh, perhaps there are valid reasons why Sam shouldn't be a sole parent for a young child. In this way, I Am Sam perpetuates the perhaps dangerous view that was also apparent in A Beautiful Mind (2001); that of giving handicapped people hero status, and not recognising that, often, the reality is vastly different to the portrayal.

These things aside, I have to admit that I really enjoyed the movie. It has some great moments, and the acting is top-notch. I'd imagine girls would enjoy it more than guys, but, oh, what the hey, everyone give it a go.

pearly gives this movie 7 out of 10.
Review created on Thu 4 Jul 2002

Movie review statistics

Number of reviews: 2
Average rating: 7.00
Lowest rating: 7 (by mino, pearly)
Highest rating: 7 (by mino, pearly)
Rating Percentage

Reader comments

  1. This is an incredible movie with an incredible performance from the outstanding Dakota Fanning

    Rating given: 10

    A comment from Soon to be famous on Fri 03 Oct 2003 00:23 #

  2. This was the most fabolous movie I've ever seen. The performance was wonderful, and you could really feel it. Sean Penn does a really great job, and so does Dakota Fanning and Michelle Pfeiffer. This movie was very heartfelt and deserves a ten.

    Rating given: 10

    A comment from Hallie ( on Tue 01 Mar 2005 10:14 #

  3. I like this movie because of the essence of the story. It's not like the other movies that talk about nonsense. There was one part of this movie wherein I was touched. It nearly made my tears fall into my cheeks. The part that I'm talking about is when Lucy (Dakota Fanning) escaped from their house just to visit and see his father Sam (Sean Penn) and this scenario went on and on for several days. I can't imagine Lucy walking in the streets in the middle of the night just because of her desire to be with his father. This movie really made a great impact on me, especially on emotional aspects.

    Rating given: 7

    A comment from Jeanne on Fri 04 Jan 2008 09:56 #

Those who have commented give this movie: 9.00 (3 ratings)

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