Love is all you need.
Lately it seems like movies dealing with handicapped people are often played for laughs. The Farrelly brothers have spoofed the mentally challenged numerous times in comedies like Shallow Hal and There's Something Like Mary. Mentally retarded individuals were even used for Garry Marshall's romantic comedy The Other Sister. My point is that it's very rare to see a movie take a handicapped person and revolve a drama around them. While I don't think I'd consider I Am Sam to be an out-and-out drama (there's too many light moments for that), it's at least a step in the right direction. While the film was met with mediocre critical response, the overwhelming majority of film critics agreed that Sean Penn's performance as Sam was the highlight of the film. In fact, Penn's performance was so moving that it garnered the actor multiple acting award nominations, including a Screen Actor's Guild nod and an Oscar nod for Best Actor (he lost to Denzel Washington in Training Day). New Line proudly presents I Am Sam on DVD.
Facts of the Case
Sam Dawson (Penn) is one of Starbucks Coffee's most devoted employees. Day in and day out Sam works fixing the sugar bins, straightening the straws and cleaning up the tables. Sam is also mentally challenged with mild autistic mannerisms. Sam has a big heart and has learned much of his life's lessons by listening to The Beatles (George is his favorite). We learn through some exposition that Sam gave shelter one night to a homeless woman which led to her becoming pregnant. As Sam and the mother are leaving the hospital with their new daughter, the mother disappears into a crowded street never to be seen again. This leaves Sam with the sole responsibility of taking care of the adorable Lucy (named after the song "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds") in his tiny one-bedroom apartment. Help comes in the form of a neighboring piano teacher (Dianne Wiest, Edward Scissorhands), who gives him answers to many tough parenting questions (when Sam needs to know when to feed Lucy, she tells him to set his TV to Nick at Nite and feed her during Hogan's Heroes and I Love Lucy). Soon little Lucy (now played by adorable newcomer Dakota Fanning) turns eight, which is a year past her father's mental capacity. As Lucy starts to hold herself back at school due to her father's mental status, Sam's limitations as a parent start to become evident. When the authorities take Lucy away to foster care, Sam seeks legal representation from embittered lawyer Rita Harrison (Michelle Pfeiffer, What Lies Beneath), who has family problems of her own. At first, Rita sends Sam away, but his persistence forces her take on his case pro bono. As the department of children's services continues their attempts to keep Lucy from her father, Sam must fight harder than ever before if he wants to keep his precious daughter in his life.
Sean Penn is the best actor of his generation, hands down. Can anyone give me another example of an individual as talented and electrifying as Penn? Over the years I've been closely watching Penn's career unfold with his attempts at directing (The Indian Runner, The Crossing Guard, The Pledge) and acting, including his Oscar nominated performances in the emotionally wringing Dead Man Walking and Woody Allen's Sweet And Lowdown. Penn is a performer of considerable poise and depth—he's one of those rare actors that brings whatever material surrounding him to another level. Such is the case with I Am Sam: this movie would not have been half as good without Penn's participation. Penn's performance as Sam easily deserved the recognition it received, though sadly the same can't really be said for the surrounding story.
I Am Sam is a movie that splits the viewer in two. On one hand, it's a typical legal drama about a loving father fighting to be with his daughter who loves him equally as much. However, the problems that I Am Sam run into are much bigger than the film can contain—the fact is that Sam really is limited in his care taking abilities with Lucy. By the last third of the film, I knew exactly what the script wanted me to feel: all we need is love. But the fact is that's not really true—certainly love would be number one on that list, but people and children especially need more than just tugging heartstrings to become functioning members of society. They need parents who are competent and wise (or if not that, at least semi-wise). Sam shows none of these traits—he is bogged down by his limitations as a parent. Before you think that I sound cold-hearted and callous, I want to point out that I've worked with the handicapped before. I taught a classroom filled with children suffering from mental conditions ranging from fragile X syndrome to autism, as well as mental retardation in all nine kids I oversaw. I have nothing but the deepest love and respect for these individuals. That being said, I can see why the courts wanted to take Lucy away from her father. As she grows older, Lucy will need guidance in puberty, school, and self realization, and these are areas that Sam cannot fulfill as a parent. The movie wants us to believe that Sam can take care of Lucy, though I have the sneaking suspicion that the majority of the audience will agree with the supposedly "evil" court system that Sam really isn't competent enough to take care of his child on his own. The prosecutor, Mr. Turner (Richard Schiff), makes a good point when he notes, "I'm here every day. You're out the door, but you know who I see come back? The child." It's as if the film shoots itself in the foot by admitting the wrong side really has the right answers.
Aside of the deeply probing arguments at the center of the film, the fact is that I Am Sam is an often syrupy, overly sentimental movie that really wants you to like it. Much of the film is filled with a hand held camera that captures what feels like real life—though I'm not sure what world this "real life" is inhabiting. I found it awfully hard to believe that Sam could support both he and his daughter on his meager salary from working at Starbucks Coffee (or, maybe Starbucks pays its employees a hefty amount that I'm just not aware of). Sam is hardly able to take care of himself, much less a baby. Maybe the film just didn't document how neighbors and other friends helped to raise Lucy to her very able age of eight years old. At every turn, we are to believe that Sam should keep Lucy. But like a mounting court case, the evidence seems to point in the other direction. In fact, when a foster mother (played by Laura Dern, Novocaine) does take Lucy into her home, she seems to really care for the young girl. Suddenly the story becomes baffling because were supposed to root for Sam to get Lucy back, yet the foster parent seems to be the best choice.
And again, I've gone off on a tangent. I Am Sam will do that to you. If nothing else this is a great movie for discussion with friends and family after the end credits roll. Aside of Penn's excellent performance, there is also Dakota Fanning as Lucy. I often find children in movies to be either cloyingly annoying or far too obnoxious. Here Fanning displays warmth and touching innocence that makes this one of the best performances by a child I've ever seen. Michelle Pfeiffer's character seems to almost just be along for the ride—compared to Penn and Fanning, she's bland in comparison. Beatles fans will certainly want to scoop this film up ASAP—the soundtrack is littered with tunes by the famous group performed by today's hit artists.
I was really excited to see this movie, and was disappointed when I missed it in the theaters last winter. After watching I Am Sam, I can recommend it as a thought-provoking film for fans of superior acting—otherwise, it's often just as confused as Sam is.
I Am Sam is presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen. As usual, New Line has done a fantastic job of making sure that this transfer looks as close to perfect as they come. Sporting a vivid array of colors and patterns (blue is often a predominant color in the film) as well as dark black levels, this is a great looking image on any TV set. Nary a hint of edge enhancement, digital artifacting, or dirt was spotted anytime during the film.
The audio is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround, DTS Surround and Dolby 2.0 Surround, all in English. Both the DTS and Dolby 5.1 soundtracks are very full and lush with excellent use of directional effects in both the front and rear speakers. Seeing as this is a drama, the bulk of this soundtrack leans from the center speaker, though there are many moments of surround sound usage during multiple scenes. The best of the surround effects come in the form of the John Powell's effective music score and the Beatles covers sprinkled throughout the movie. Also included on this disc are subtitles in English.
I Am Sam is part of New Line's respected "Platinum Edition" line, and while this disc may not be stocked full of features, the supplements available are very substantial. Starting off the disc is commentary by director/co-writer Jessie Nelson. This commentary is jam packed with information on the making of the film. Everything from The Beatles music to the actual disabled people used in the film is touched upon on this track. Nelson has a very soft voice and natural warmth that makes this commentary well worth listening to.
"Becoming Sam" is a very thorough 43-minute documentary. I was more than impressed with how insightful and intricate this documentary was. Thankfully, you can tell from the outset that this wasn't just made for promotional use—it's actually a well thought out companion piece to the film. The interviewees include director/co-writer Jessie Nelson, co-writer Kristine Johnson, director of photography Elliot Davis (with blue hair!), editor Richard Chew, producers Edward Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz, and actors Sean Penn, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Dakota Fanning. I found it really cool that before production started the filmmakers interviewed a group of disabled people and the general consensus was that they all loved The Beatles, which then was the obvious choice for the underlying soundtrack. Another funny tidbit was the fact that Down's Syndrome actor Brad Silverman refused to ask Pfeiffer if she was wearing a Wonder Bra for fear of offending her husband David E. Kelly. Adorable! There is a lot of information in this documentary and I highly recommend taking the time to watch it.
Seven deleted/alternate scenes are included with optional commentary by director Nelson. After going through all of these scenes, I think that I can safely say that their exclusion was a wise decision on the part of the director. Listening to them with optional commentary gives the viewer an extra added insight as to why they were left on the cutting room floor. I read through the grapevine that there was actually a love scene filmed for Sam and Rita—this was wisely left out of the finished film.
Finally, there is a section titled "Theatrical Press Kit," which includes some production notes and information on the cast and crew, as well as a theatrical trailer for I Am Sam.
If I Am Sam doesn't completely succeed, it's still a thought provoking movie that is well worth catching if only for Sean Penn's excellent performance. New Line has done a fine job on both the supplements and the video / audio presentations of this disc.
I find I Am Sam to be guilty of manipulation, though it's out on bail due to its compassionate themes. Case dismissed!
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Scales of Justice
Studio: New Line
• Commentary with Director/Co-Writer Jessie Nelson
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