Lowdown: A single retarded father fights the authorities for custody of his daughter.
I first heard of I Am Sam in the context of its soundtrack. Back when the film was released back in 2001 I was at the height of my Beatles fandom, so hearing about a film whose soundtrack is made entirely of Beatles covers was certainly interesting news. I did not, however, watch the film until it was recently broadcast on Aussie TV.
I Am Sam stars Sean Penn in a role that’s always tricky but has a rather rewarding Academy Awards tradition: a retard. As the film start, we see the birth of his daughter followed immediately by the mother leaving him to care for the baby on his own (later we learn the mother was a homeless person who took shelter in Sam’s apartment). Sam finds it difficult to adjust and accommodate for the daughter, but he does all it takes and we find him fathering a very lovely Dakota Fanning as a result just a few scenes later.
Trouble starts when Fanning begins to eclipse her father’s intellectual capabilities at the age of seven. That, as well as the friction caused when her friends encounter Sam, reaches a boiling point after which custody over Dakota is taken away from Sam. Sam may be retarded but he loves his daughter and he won’t give her up; he goes out to secure the services of a lawyer who never lost, Michelle Pfeiffer. Sam is not Pfeiffer’s type in character and depth of wallet, but eventually she takes over his case in order to impress her peers. Together, they go through life and everything that comes along with it as they wage legal battles.
Overall, I Am Sam is a nice and touching film. Its main idea is not the concept of being retarded itself but rather the more philosophical question of what is a successful life, a question that is mirrored through the contradictions between the Penn character and the Pfeiffer one: one is dumb and poor but is also a loving and compassionate father, the other has everything materialism can deliver (a mansion, a Porsche, and a career so successful only celebrity movie stars can acquire a hotter social status) yet her personal life is a total failure from relationships to parenthood.
I Am Sam is not without its faults. First on the list is the very shaky handheld camera work that annoyed the hell out of me; I’m glad I haven’t seen this one at the cinemas. What was the director trying to do there?
Second is the artificially sweetened nature of the film. It’s just too artificial to absorb without a barf bag, leaving me to wonder why the filmmakers went as far as they did to avoid tainting the Sam character even by a tiny bit. Can we really expect a parent, be it a normal or a retarded one, never to have a moment of anger with their son or daughter? Anyone who’s had the dubious pleasure of having kids, which qualifies for most of this film’s viewers, will know better; their appreciation of the film will suffer, as mine did. Significantly.
On the positive side, I Am Sam has the great privilege of sporting some very talented cast. Acting for our viewing pleasure are Pfeiffer, Fanning, Laura Dern and several others, but they are all eclipsed by a Penn who really gives a tremendously convincing and powerful performance. Yet, can a film rely on performances alone when the substance is suffering from an excess of Sorbitol? No.
So, what about the soundtrack, I hear you ask? Well, let me put it this way: stick to the originals.
Representative scene: While Sam is struggling to afford a place that can host his daughter and provide her with a room separate to his, he visits Pfeiffer’s residence to find a huge mansion that is empty in volume and emotion. This seemingly accidental contradiction is just one of those things that are too big to be good for I Am Sam.
Overall: Beatles’ references cannot make a mediocre script shine. 3 out of 5 stars.