Jessie Nelson’s custody-battle drama “”I Am Sam”” solicits a range of emotions, some genuine and some genuinely fake. Nelson’s intentions are evident, though the methods by which she achieves them can often be considered pious and manipulative. The result is a flawed gem that will have you wiping your eyes one minute and rolling them the next.
At the beginning of the film, we’re introduced to Sam (Sean Penn), a mentally challenged Starbucks employee (I know, they all seem mentally challenged at times) whose imprudent relationship with a homeless woman results an unwanted pregnancy. The woman gives birth to a girl, who Sam names Lucy after the Beatles’ trippy ode, “”Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,”” but the mother runs, choosing freedom over responsibility to either the father or the child.Luckily for Sam, as well as for Lucy, the man comes with a built-in support system. His friends – a close knit group who share Sam’s mental limitations – lend helping hands, as does Sam’s agoraphobic neighbor, Annie (Dianne Wiest). Lucy (Dakota Fanning) matures, though we see that when she begins to pass her father mentally, she holds herself back for fear of disrupting the simplified life they’ve established. Instead of reading her class assignments, Lucy prefers to have her father read “”Green Eggs and Ham”” for the umpteenth time. It’s not the story that’s comforting, but rather the practice of her father reading it that works like a security blanket Lucy’s not ready to shed.However, officials from Lucy’s school realize what’s happening, so they intervene. Sam’s ability to raise a child is questioned, with no legitimate answers given. And when a social worker (Loretta Devine) conveniently crashes Lucy’s surprise party just in time to see Sam scuffle with a belligerent father, the courts step in and take Lucy away. Sam’s search for proper legal council leads him to the offices of attorney Rita Harrison (the ageless Michelle Pfeiffer), or “”Lovely Rita, Meter Maid,”” as Sam repeatedly sings when in her presence. An emotionally vacuous lawyer, Rita wouldn’t help Sam if he were Christ incarnate on his way to Pilate’s courtroom. However, peer pressure inexplicably prompts Rita to accept Sam’s case pro bono, and the two set out to win, not because it will reunite the father with his daughter, but simply because Rita hates to lose. “”Sam””‘s problems begin and end with Pfeiffer’s character, an unfortunate mesh of stereotypical dilemmas established simply so they can be ironed out by her coincidental interactions with a mentally retarded character. What, Sam’s uphill battle to reclaim his daughter wasn’t dramatic enough that the filmmakers needed to mix in the salvation of a shrill, soulless defense lawyer as well? Through no fault of Pfeiffer, who tries hard with what she’s given, Rita’s conversion lacks empathy. What’s worse, Sam’s healing power seems to stretch over Rita’s son, as well, who hates his mother throughout the film, but shuttles their disagreements and welcomes her back by the end of the film. Too tidy, shameless, and completely unnecessary given the emotional weight of the film’s prime storyline. Which returns us to Sam and Lucy, the true focal point of the film and a showcase of immense talent and emotional chemistry. Penn’s towering performance as Sam bolsters the film’s highs. Some actors who play retarded capture the illness, while some merely capture Dustin Hoffman’s performance in “”Rain Man.”” Penn manages both, latching on to a catch phrase (“”That’s a wonderful choice,”” he tells his Starbucks customers), while honing in on the innocence Sam displays when faced with adult problems. On top of that, Penn’s connection with Fanning is palpable. Their shared scenes are gut-wrenching, their forged bond sincere. “”Sam”” raises intriguing moral questions that bear discussion. Should mentally retarded people be prevented from raising children? While “”Sam”” wraps up a little to easily for my tastes, it does carry a commendable message of familial love. If only it utilized something a little more consequential than Beatles lyrics and song titles to express it. Final Grade: B-Sean O’Connell