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You Are Here:  Movie Reviews  >  I am Sam

Dan Heller's Movie Review of "I Am Sam"

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Remember when Dustin Hoffman played the autistic and retarded adult, Raymond, in the 1988 film, Rain Man? Now imagine he had a child, and tried to raise her, entirely on his own and unassisted. A preposterous premise for movie, you say? Ok, then try this on for size: after losing custody of the child due to an observant social worker, a feature-length film dedicates the bulk of its time and emotional capital on the expectation that the audience will believe (let alone support) the notion that this poor, helpless soul can or even should regain the custody of the child. Even more preposterous, you say? Well, this is the entire premise of the movie, I am Sam.

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The film stars Sean Penn as Sam, a retarded man with the IQ level of a seven year old child. He fathers a perfectly normal and adorable girl named, Lucy, through a chance encounter with a homeless woman that needed a place to stay one night. After she has the child, she leaves him holding the baby at a bus stop, where he takes her home and tries to raise the girl her on his own. By the time Lucy is seven, her intellect begins to pass his, raising the attention of a social worker who decides that she would be better off with foster parents. Sam manages to get a lawyer named Rita, played by Michelle Pfeiffer, to take his case pro bono, and help Sam retain custody of Lucy. A host of other top-name stars join the cast of potentially important, but ultimately minor roles, all leading to an ending that is neither surprising nor climactic.

The dilemma with hating this movie so much is two-fold: first, there's the political-incorrectness of anyone who doesn't think that a father shouldn't have the right to care for his own child, especially when it's clear that there is a strong emotional connection between them. Secondly, Sean Penn does such a notable job at portraying a retarded adult, that you want to forgive the movie its problems for his benefit. Unfortunately, this kind of mentally disabled character has been done so many times before by other, equally-gifted actors, that it just doesn't overcome the plethora of problems the movie suffers.

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As mentioned earlier, the primary problem with the film is its premise. It's just too ridiculous that the kind of mentally retarded man portrayed in this movie should have sole, unassisted custody of a child. This is compounded by inconsistencies in that portrayal; the way Penn plays a retarded man is fantastic, but his degree of dysfunction varies depending on what the movie wants you to believe at any given time. At some moments, he is so inept that getting him to do simple things like pay attention is nearly impossible, yet, Sam also seems to "know what to do next" in complicated plot points in order to move the story along. In short, the film unsuccessfully hand-waves the notion that Sam could take care of himself and a child, leaving the audience unconvinced.

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The second problem with the film is that it was too narrowly focused in its objectives. Almost the entire movie was about Sam getting his child back, while a very minor part of it was to convey a message. (And it's feeble at a "message" at that: All you need is love to be a good parent, and no other kind of responsibility is necessary.) Movies like this aren't supposed to be just about the protagonist's objective. They're supposed to portray a journey in life, lessons learned or morals espoused, all leading to a better understanding of human nature, possibly even changing you forever. Films like Rain Man, and Being There, both of which featured mentally-challenged men, had other people rediscover themselves through the behaviors and actions of the retarded hero through their simple, pure, and child-like views on life. I am Sam had no characters go through a transformation, self-realization, or any sort of epiphany about themselves. Its one and only attempt at this was a five-second scene of Sam's lawyer, Rita, trying to get closer to her estranged seven-year-old son, but it failed quickly, and we never saw the relationship evolve. Since I am Sam chose not to do any of those things, it should have at least paid better attention to logistical details in order to sell the premise that it so fervently stuck to.

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Other details annoyed me deeply. Subplots go nowhere, no other relationships are examined or even portrayed with depth, and the glaring oversimplified treatment of Sam's psychological predicament leaves too much field for wandering minds to drift. Lastly, the hand-held camera technique that was popular in some films and music videos of the 1990s was inappropriate for this kind of drama, and it succeeded only in drawing more attention to the movie's flaws.

If it weren't for the fact that I had to write this review, I'd have walked out of it about 30 minutes into it. A shame, too, because the performances by the heavy-hitting cast could have been extraordinary had they had more to work with.