People with mental disabilities may never meet the standards deemed ordinary in the American psyche. In "I am Sam," directed by Jessie Nelson, the raw emotions and challenges the main character, Sam Dawson (Sean Penn), faces are mirrored in the not-so-perfect life of the lawyer (Michelle Pfeiffer) who has set out to help him.
Sam, who is described as having "autistic tendencies," has a job at Starbucks. He spends his nights going to IHOP and the movies with his friends, all who are disabled as well.
Sam's daughter, Lucy (Dakota Fanning), is dropped into his lap, the result of a night with a homeless woman needing a place to stay. Unable to understand the concept of telling time, Sam consults his friend, Annie (Dianne Wiest), a blind piano teacher. She gives him a schedule according to his Nickelodeon shows to ensure Lucy will be fed every two hours.
The childhood looks fun, lots of playing in the park and reading Green Eggs and Ham late into the night, until Lucy begins to realize her father is different and her reading abilities begin to rival Sam's.
Magically, on Lucy's seventh birthday, social services show up, shortly after Sam is informed by the school that Lucy has been holding back, as if "afraid to learn."
It is strange that social services doesn't catch on to this unusual parenting situation until Lucy is reaching her father's diagnosed mental capacity. Lucy is more distant as Sam can't adjust to court appointments and visitation schedules.
Pfeiffer enters the scene after Sam's friends encourage him to get a big-shot attorney so he can win his case and get Lucy back. Pfeiffer portrays Rita Harrison, a very successful lawyer with a dismal marriage and relationship with her own child. She takes on Sam's case pro bono when her colleagues scoff at such a concept from the ruthless lawyer they presume her to be.
As social services argues the effects of Sam's disability on Lucy's education and development, pushing Sam's buttons as he can't follow complex lines of questioning, Lucy brings out the central theme of the movie. Testifying at the hearing, Lucy tells the judge, "all you need is love," quoting from the vast knowledge of the Beatles her father has instilled in her.
The lack of effort to have the court processes slowed down and adjusted to suit Sam and the rights that he would have is frustrating at times, and there are scenes that are heartbreakers.
Penn shines in a very challenging role, so different from anything he has played in the past: he has to adapt his behavior to that of an autistic, routine-dependent man. At the same time, Penn injects the sense of a parent wanting to be taken seriously and to have his emotions validated just as much as everyone is valuing Lucy's.
Rita's character strives for career goals while her family and the rest of her life slips away. When Sam begins to give up and challenges Rita's understanding of his situation, both characters have a catharsis that renews their quests for love and family.
Nelson and Kristine Johnson's script is true to actual behavior. The film skillfully portrays the challenges facing people with mental disabilities and the emotional processes that fuel Sam and initially frustrate, then empower, Rita.