When Sam Dawson (Sean Penn), a grown man with the mental capacity of a seven-year-old, witnesses the birth of his baby daughter, he can”t believe his eyes. The mistake he made of having taken in a homeless woman and getting her pregnant had resulted in the most beautiful thing in his life, Lucy Diamond Dawson (Dakota Fanning) named after the Beatles” song. “I am Sam,” directed by Jessie Nelson, draws an ambiguous line between one”s mental ability and the ability to raise a child. At the same time, it touchingly reveals the endless love that someone can have for another, and how it is love, and only love, that really means anything to someone else, especially one”s child. Fanning”s debut as Sam”s daughter strongly hints at future success, as she is extremely adorable and very talented.
With such a painfully difficult issue being explored, comic relief is not only helpful, but also necessary. Although the story is about Sam”s efforts to get Lucy back when she is taken away at the age of seven, the resulting pain and frustration is balanced by such moments as when Sam”s friends (each of whom are also mentally handicapped in some way) come over for movie night, and one gets to see how all of the men interact with each other, which is often hilarious. Also, Sam”s job at the local Starbucks, along with his devotion to the Beatles, help give his character some personality quirks which assist in making him interesting.
Penn definitely nails this challenging role, and his run-in with Rita Harrison (Michelle Pfeifer), his new lawyer who finally decides to take his case pro bono simply to prove to her colleagues that she”s not as cold and insensitive as they may think, results in a wonderful development of Sam”s determination to get Lucy back. Some of the best scenes involve Rita and Sam in the courtroom, and Pfeifer seems perfect for this role playing the preoccupied and eccentric lawyer who eventually begins to learn some valuable lessons herself. One of the best scenes consists of Rita actually expressing her fears with Sam, instead of the other way around, which shows how she needs him just as much as he needs her.
The only problem in “I am Sam” is the doubt over the reality of it all. You may want to know if the film is based on a true story it seems quite likely. Because it is not, however, some situations seem very unrealistic, and they raise a lot of doubt. First of all, could a mentally handicapped man even be allowed to raise a child, especially when it was based on an accident? The question seems harsh, but it seems that today”s legal system would have stepped in sooner to explore the issue.
Also, it seems there are a few slight inconsistencies in Sam”s behavior. His limited capabilities are obvious, yet there are times when these capacities are contradicted by an obvious advancement in his abilities. For example, he is not able to read the word “definitely” when he is reading with his daughter, yet he is able to remember a speech verbatim, which he attempts to use on the witness stand. These inconsistencies result from the effort to make his scenes more poignant, but at the same time, they raise confusion over just how likely his chances are of regaining custody of Lucy.
Nevertheless, “I am Sam” effectively transcends some of this doubt by bringing up an even larger and more complicated issue. Just how much can love overshadow all of these worldly concerns such as the law and the government”s intervention? The ending of “I am Sam” reminds us that the concern is not just over who will raise Lucy it is over the question of who will realize that all you need is love.