Sam (Sean Penn) is a mentally-disabled man who makes a modest living working at Starbucks and enjoys life with his friends. After a one-night-stand with a homeless woman, Sam is left, nine months later, with Lucy (Dakota Fanning), his baby daughter. As Lucy grows older, it becomes clear to the educators around her that by age 8, she will surpass Sam's mental capacity, thereby almost becoming Sam's parent in a way. When Lucy is taken away from Sam by child protection services, he retains a high-strung lawyer (Michelle Pfeiffer) and fights to prove how worthy a father he truly is.
"I Am Sam" (IMDb listing) would be nothing without Sean Penn. I cannot explain it more than that. A true chameleon, Penn becomes Sam in just about every way possible. The talking, the looks, the way Sam walks... this performance is completely committed. Taking on an almost Houdini-esque approach to his acting, Penn holds together "I Am Sam" dazzlingly. He doesn't play Sam for the fool, or the lovable disabled person that most actors fall into a trap portraying. Sam is an individual, and doesn't invite too much unearned sympathy. You can thank Penn for that. He also adds this character to his inconceivable list of insanely committed performances, ranging from surfer dude Jeff Spicoli to the cold-blooded convicted murderer Matthew Poncelet. Penn is a master actor, and though his attention span can be too short at times, when his focus is unbreakable there isn't a better actor around.
Of course, Penn doesn't come to the film without backup. Playing Sam's daughter Lucy is an extraordinary young actress named Dakota Fanning. A mixture of juvenile and adult to Sam's pure child, Fanning is exceptional. And being only the age of 7, Fanning even manages to hold her own against the likes of Penn and Michelle Pfeiffer. Not a small feat.
Writer/director Jesse Nelson instills "I Am Sam" with just the right mix of sentimentality and real-world cruelty that she placed in her previous film, "Corrina, Corrina." That's not to say "Sam" isn't littered with moments that betray honesty in the pursuit of tears, but those moments are tempered with the film's unusually fair point of view. Sam isn't a character who heals or has all the answers for the people around him. He is a character who is disabled, and for all his good intentions, honestly cannot take care of his daughter. Nelson approaches this with the utmost care, but makes the case against Sam just as believable as the one for him. I couldn't detect many false, audience-pleasing tendencies for most of the film, though Nelson finally breaks down for a climax that doesn't serve the rest of the film fairly.
Nelson also chooses to simulate Sam's chaotic and impaired world through the use of constantly zooming and reframing camerawork. Think "NYPD Blue" without the cold, dead New York streets. I cannot say this benefits the film greatly, as it predictably becomes annoying and overused as the film rolls along. Yet, at certain moments, this aesthetic choice clearly conveys just where Sam is coming from and how he perceives his world. Since the material is strong enough to withstand the overindulgence this brings, it could also survive if camera movement wasn't employed at all. Just make sure to take some Dramamine before you attend this film.
Since Sam is a Beatlemaniac, "I Am Sam" is scored with covers of classic Beatles tunes. The songs act as kind of a guide to the moods of the film, and although they are only covers (and I'd like to meet the person who asked The Wallflowers to murder "I'm Looking Through You"), they fit the movie very sweetly. Nothing speaks more about the bond between Sam and Lucy than to hear the brilliant song "Two Of Us" during the montage of the young girl growing up.
"I Am Sam" runs a little long and ends a little too neatly, but heavens, it's tough to find a movie with its heart in a more loving place. Go to see it for the genius acting by Penn and Fanning, but stay for the lump in your throat that will develop as you watch the rare movie that shows that fatherseven mentally disabled ones like Samcan love too.
Filmfodder Grade: A-