Popcorn and Inspiration: ‘I Am Sam’: Director Jessie Nelson’s Uplifting and Heartwarming Family Drama

Michael Clark
PG-13 | 2h 12min | DramaFamily | 28 December 2001 (USA)

Let’s get this out of the way first and be done with it. I’m pretty sure I’m not alone here when I say that I don’t align with Sean Penn politically. He’s entitled to his opinions, and under the rights afforded to him by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, he is free to express those views—and I, as an American and ardent constitutionalist, will forever defend his right to do so. That’s how this country works, at least for the time being.

My job is to critique movies, and, as such, I am required to separate the off-screen beliefs of artists from their work. And Penn’s carefully measured performance as a mentally challenged single parent in “I Am Sam” is among the most impressive I’ve ever witnessed by any actor in any movie. There, done.

With a Little Help From His Friends

Immediately after delivering a daughter (Dakota Fanning as Lucy), an unnamed homeless woman abandons her and the child’s father, Sam (Penn), at a Los Angeles hospital. Working as a custodian at a coffee shop, Sam has the mental capacity of a 7-year-old, yet is able to support Lucy thanks to four similarly challenged buddies and his agoraphobic neighbor Annie (Dianne Wiest).
 Sean Penn as Sam and Dianne Wiest as his agoraphobic neighbor Annie in "I Am Sam." (New Line Cinema)
Sean Penn as Sam and Dianne Wiest as his agoraphobic neighbor Annie in "I Am Sam." (New Line Cinema)
The problems begin when Lucy enters second grade and she starts to intellectually eclipse Sam. Trying to stave off the inevitable, and in a gesture of solidarity with her functionally illiterate father, she refuses to commence learning how to read. This in turn becomes an issue at school that eventually leads to the courts initiating proceedings to forcibly separate the parent and his child.

Hello Goodbye

An understandably panicked Sam is able to get the attention of attorney Rita Harrison (Michelle Pfeiffer), a family law specialist who politely blows him off by telling him that another lawyer will “get back to him.” When this doesn’t occur, Sam approaches her again, this time in full view of her entire firm, most of whom (correctly) consider Rita to be an over-caffeinated, tightly wound cold fish.

Backpedaling quicker than a White House spokesperson, Rita makes sure everyone hears that not only will she take Sam’s case, but she’ll do so pro bono.

Not nearly as happy or together as she might appear on the surface, Rita has her own set of familial issues to contend with, namely, a husband (unseen and unnamed) with a serial roving eye and a son about the same age as Lucy (Chase MacKenzie Bebak as Willy) who barely speaks to her.

Transformed Rita

As time progresses and Sam’s court case draws closer, we see Rita slowly begin to loosen up and relax, which she later attributes to her time spent with him. At one point, she wells up and says to Sam, “I’m afraid I’m getting more out of this relationship than you.” And it’s true. Before the movie ends, Rita has become a better person and is the only character in the film afforded a transformational arc.
 Dakota Fanning as Lucy and Laura Dern as Randy in "I Am Sam." (New Line Cinema)
Dakota Fanning as Lucy and Laura Dern as Randy in "I Am Sam." (New Line Cinema)
The screenplay, co-written by producer and director Jessie Nelson and Kristine Johnson, pulls off a few minor miracles along way while avoiding some dangerous, deal-killing missteps.

Act Naturally

The first and most successful victory was in allowing the Oscar-nominated Penn to improvise while filming and coming up with material they had not considered; almost all of it made the final cut. Penn himself never goes over the top with his speech, ticks, hand gestures, and all-around physicality. He doesn’t act like a mentally challenged man; he behaves like one: There’s a big difference between the two.

Second, in any type of legal drama, a villain or two is essentially required and the filmmakers are sure to include a couple, but here it's not in a manner we’ve come to expect. Social worker Miss Calgrove (Loretta Devine) is given the unenviable task of being Lucy’s caretaker during the trial and, despite the child’s clear resentment, she never loses her cool or disciplines Lucy. She simply and dispassionately does her job.

Much the same can be said for Mr. Turner (Richard Schiff), the state’s attorney who is charged with proving that Sam is incapable of continuing to be Lucy’s parent. He speaks with a direct, measured tone while asking open-ended questions and never verbally attacks Sam. Again, he’s doing his job and nothing more.

 Sam (Sean Penn) and Lucy (Dakota Fanning), his daughter, read together in "I Am Sam." (New Line Cinema)
Sam (Sean Penn) and Lucy (Dakota Fanning), his daughter, read together in "I Am Sam." (New Line Cinema)
Last, it would have been so easy to have included an evil foster or adoptive mother as a foil, yet Nelson and Johnson did not. They instead present Randy (Laura Dern) as a happily married, stable, and even-keeled woman who, even with considerable levels of charm and grace, can never fully win Lucy over.

An Important Touch

From the start, the filmmakers wanted to include actual songs by the Beatles, not only for aural wallpaper but also as another character driving the narrative. Not surprising, they found this to be beyond cost prohibitive and, with the full blessing of Paul McCartney and John Lennon’s widow Yoko Ono, commissioned nearly 20 artists to perform cover versions. The big rub was that the covers had to be tonally and the same length as the originals, as the film was shot and edited with the originals in mind.

The resulting Grammy-nominated soundtrack album doesn’t have a single clunker on it and some of the songs are outstanding. They include “Blackbird” (Sarah McLachlan), “Mother Nature’s Son” (Sheryl Crowe), “Two of Us” (Aimee Mann and Michael Penn), “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away” (Eddie Vedder), “Across the Universe” (Rufus Wainwright), and “Strawberry Fields Forever” (Ben Harper).

As is all too often the case with many family-friendly “message” films, the majority of the critics hated “I Am Sam” (currently 35 percent on Rotten Tomatoes). Yet I listed it as my favorite movie of 2001, and the audience rating on the same site is at 86 percent.

The people and I have spoken.

‘I Am Sam’ Director: Jessie Nelson Stars: Sean Penn, Dakota Fanning, Michelle Pfeiffer, Dianne Wiest, Laura Dern Running Time: 2 hours, 12 minutes MPAA Rating: PG-13 Release Date: Dec. 28, 2001 Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Originally from Washington, D.C., Michael Clark has provided film content to over 30 print and online media outlets. He co-founded the Atlanta Film Critics Circle in 2017 and is a weekly contributor to the Shannon Burke Show on FloridaManRadio.com. Since 1995, Mr. Clark has written over 4,000 movie reviews and film-related articles. He favors dark comedy, thrillers, and documentaries.
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