I Am Sam
Cast: Sean Penn, Michelle Pfeiffer, Dianne Wiest, Dakota Fanning, Richard Schiff,
Doug Hutchison, Loretta Devine, Laura Dern
Writer/Producer/Director: Jessie Nelson, with assists
Theatrical release: 2001; available on DVD
Even with Academy Award® nominee Sean Penn in the pivotal title role, there are all kinds of ways this film could have gone south — but it didn't. Big-blue-eyed, wispy blonde seven-year-old Dakota Fanning found a spot on everyone's radar with this older-than-her-years performance. She more than holds her own with Hollywood A-listers Penn, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Dianne Wiest. So do challenged actors Brad and Joe from L.A. Goal, the sheltered workshop where filmmakers did months of research before beginning to write the script.
I Am Sam is a well-realized story of love and family that transcends place and time. In fact, the main characters show us two ends of the parental and social spectrum, which are not as far apart as it might seem at first. Who's to say that the obsessive-compulsive perfectionism of the high-powered lawyer is any more or less dysfunctional than that of the mentally challenged father who must have order in his world?
The story revolves around the parental rights of Sam, a single father with the mental age of about seven and who's daughter Lucy has, in many ways, surpassed him. As Lucy nears her seventh birthday, nightly story-time reading expands beyond Sam's favorite Dr. Seuss — Green Eggs and Ham (Sam, I am) — to Stellaluna. Sam struggles with the new book and wants to return to familiar territory. Although Lucy has no problems with the new story, she doesn't want to say the word "different," because she realizes that it describes this man she loves.
As the child struggles with her emotions about her father and her friends, a series of misadventures leads to the intervention of social services and Lucy is taken away from Sam. The film then immerses us in Sam's journey, as he links up with a powerful "four-name" lawyer and encounters the courts and foster care system, to bring Lucy back home. It's an emotionally engaging and fulfilling film experience.
If the filmmakers have done a good job, one of the best things about DVDs is all the "extra" stuff and backstory available on the disk about the development of the film. In the documentary about Becoming Sam, writer/producer/director Jessie Nelson describes how the seed of the film came from her own experience as a new parent who was at wit's end in caring for her sick child.
There's also fascinating background about the research, casting, how the characters were developed, the look and feel, and the music, which is based on Beatles songs covered by artists like Eddie Vetter, Ben Harper, Rufus Wainright, Ben Folds, The Black Crowes, The Wallflowers, Sarah MacLachlan, Aimee Mann and Michael Penn, Sheryl Crow, and others.