I Am Sam (2001)

Directed by Jessie Nelson
Written by Kristine Johnson & Jessie Nelson
Starring Sean Penn, Michelle Pfeiffer, Dakota Fanning, Dianne Wiest, Laura Dern

My Advice: Don't Miss It.

Sam (Penn) is a mentally retarded man who has had a bit of a circumstance thrust upon him: a daughter, Lucy (Fanning). When the daughter gets old enough to go to school, that, along with some other occurrences behind his control, bring his familial situation to the attention of social services. Facing the threat of losing his daughter, Sam finds by an interesting accident the lawyer Rita (Pfeiffer), who has problems of her own. Now he just has to convince her and the court that he and Lucy belong together, despite the fact that his daughter is already becoming intellectually superior to him.

What could have been a schmaltz-ridden unabashed tearjerker instead comes across as a very balanced film. It's readily nailed down to reality by the performances of not only Penn and Pfeiffer, but also the relative newcomer Fanning, who is able to give just terribly heartwrenching moments that feel positively real. Penn's acting is flawless, and it's good to see Pfeiffer rebounding from the artistic atrocity that was Arse Lies Beneath. She gives a speech past the midpoint of the film that, in today's crazy world, is enough to bring anybody to tears. The direction by Nelson is very solid as well, so much so that it distracts from the distracting handheld shaki-cam that permeates the film, the movie's biggest drawback. Also of note is that the writing is smart enough to give us well-rounded characters--no villains wearing black hats, these could all be people we know.

Also of note in the film is the soundtrack, comprised of Beatles covers--since Sam is obsessed with the Beatles. Ben Harper, Ben Folds, Eddie Vedder and Sarah McLachlan all have versions of Beatles songs that are used to great effect over the course of the flick.

There are feel good movies that manipulate and push buttons, and it's all a matter of how deftly the buttons are pushed that can make or break such films. Luckily, this one is a keeper. Anyone who's ever been a parent or a child will be reaching for the tissue. Recommended.

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Buy the musical score on CD from Amazon!

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