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(2001) (Sean Penn, Michelle Pfeiffer) (PG-13)

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Drama: A single, mentally challenged father tries to regain custody of his daughter when she finally surpasses him intellectually and is removed from their home by the courts.
Sam Dawson (SEAN PENN) is a mentally challenged man who works cleaning tables at the local Starbucks. He's also the single father to Lucy (DAKOTA FANNING), his precocious 7-year-old who has accepted that he's different from other dads.

With the limited help of Annie (DIANNE WIEST), his shut-in neighbor, and Ifty (DOUG HUTCHISON), Robert (STANLEY DESANTIS), Brad (BRAD ALLAN SILVERMAN) and Joe (JOSEPH ROSENBERG), his mentally challenged best friends, Sam has managed to raise Lucy to be an intelligent and well-adjusted young girl.

Yet, when she finally surpasses him intellectually, she begins to hold back in school, a point that eventually brings social worker Margaret Calgrove (LORETTA DEVINE) into the picture. She and others determine that Sam will be unable to raise Lucy properly in the coming years and thus remove her from his custody.

Desperate and prodded on by his friends to hire someone to defend his rights, Sam approaches Rita Harrison (MICHELLE PFEIFFER), a harried lawyer who knows he can't afford her and that she neither has time for him nor his case. Peer pressure, however, eventually makes her change her mind, and she reluctantly sets out to help him.

As she gets to know Sam and Lucy goes off to live with her foster mom, Randy (LAURA DERN), Rita then tries to do what she can - while taking on Mr. Turner (RICHARD SCHIFF), her opposition in the custody hearings - to prove that Sam's a good parent and is capable of continuing to raise Lucy.

OUR TAKE: 4 out of 10
It's a shame when a talented person gives it his or her all, but is undermined by the overall failure of the collective effort in which they're participating. For example, for much of his career, Walter Payton - arguably the greatest running back of all time - played terrifically for a Chicago Bears team that wasn't very good for many years.

The same can occur with movies where one or more good to great efforts are lost in or overshadowed by a subpar film. "I Am Sam" is one such example, where the fine efforts of stars Sean Penn and young Dakota Fanning are pretty much wasted in a contrived and manipulative picture that wants to be an uplifting, feel-good tearjerker.

Featuring the tale of a mentally challenged, single father who loses custody of his young daughter when she finally surpasses him on an intellectual level, the film has some potential and raises some good questions about what makes a good parent.

It will also probably end up playing quite differently to different viewers. Some will allow the story's emotional moments and material to wash over them - some of which is admittedly rather effective at times - and will thus sympathize with the protagonist and his quandary, and will root for him to regain custody of his girl.

Others, however, when not having to stymie their gag reflex, will find the film flawed in all sorts of ways. They may also see Penn's portrayal of a mentally challenged individual as artificial and carefully calculated Oscar bait, while Fanning may come off as irritatingly precocious.

Depending on one's viewpoint, tolerance for such stories and material, and overall mood when being exposed to it, all such observations have some merit. I found myself experiencing a combination of some of those varying factors.

Despite eliciting unavoidable comparisons to Dustin Hoffman's performance in "Rain Man" - a decidedly different film in story and tone - Penn's ("Sweet and Lowdown," "Up at the Villa") take on his higher functioning character is quite impressive, but I can see why some viewers might have problems with it. Fanning, who I don't recall from the abysmal "Tomcats," comes off as a natural actress who's as cute as a button and delivers a terrific performance. That's despite some of her dialogue coming off as too mature and contrived for her young age.

With a good chemistry between the two and some decent, but decidedly different father/daughter moments involving them, the stage would seem set for an engaging, thought-provoking, and yes, possibly even entertaining little film. After all, any picture that also includes decent covers of classic Beatles tunes and a certain Beatle life philosophy on the protagonist's part can't be half bad.

Unfortunately, the production is littered with various problems. The most glaring is the annoying camera work of cinematographer Elliot Davis ("The Next Best Thing," "Out of Sight") under the direction of director Jessie Nelson ("Corrina, Corrina," co-writer of "The Story of Us" and "Stepmom"). While I understand the symbolic effort - all of the jerky camera moves and jump cuts are supposed to represent Sam's confused state - the effect is overused and quickly wears out its welcome, giving the film something of a low budget, amateurish feel.

The bigger problem is with the script by Nelson and co-writer Kristine Johnson (co-writer of "Imaginary Crimes"). When not being manipulative - one can almost see the audience sign flashing "Smile" or "Cry now" - the plot and various scenes are seriously flawed. For starters, the premise has an obvious problem. During all of the custody matters regarding whether Sam is fit to raise a daughter who's now smarter than him, no one seems to notice or care that he appears to have done a fine job doing so up until this point.

It would have been wise for the film to address how he actually managed to raise a well-behaved and intelligent girl. We do briefly see his shut-in neighbor, played by Diane Wiest ("Practical Magic," "Bullets Over Broadway"), giving him a tidbit of advice, and his mentally challenged friends helping pay for some shoes, but the filmmakers should have shown more such material.

Either that, or have someone, especially his lawyer, pound such facts into the ground. As most everyone knows, raising a child - even with a spouse and full mental functioning - can be a difficult job, and the results aren't always a work of art. Considering how Lucy turned out after her formative years, Sam should be given some bonus points, especially considering his various handicaps, mental and otherwise.

That aside, the child custody hearings themselves feel forced and artificial, lacking in both punch and growing dramatic momentum, and are likely to have more critical viewers rolling their eyes in disbelief at what's presented.

As Sam's legal representation, Michelle Pfeiffer ("What Lies Beneath," "The Story of Us") finds herself trapped in a clichéd and stereotypical role of a harried lawyer who inevitably grows as both a person and mother thanks to her involvement with Sam and his case. Despite that and what's initially an annoying performance playing that sort of character, Pfeiffer gets better as the story progresses, and manages to breathe a little something extra into the part to prevent it from being just another cliché.

Doug Hutchison ("Bait," "The Green Mile"), Stanley Desantis ("Head Over Heals," "Bulworth"), Brad Allan Silverman (making his debut) and Joseph Rosenberg (also making his debut) appear as Sam's friends who are also mentally challenged, and they provide most of the film's comic relief such as when they all try to help Sam record his outgoing answering machine message.

Richard Schiff ("Lucky Numbers," TV's "The West Wing") appears as the obligatory "villain" who argues against Sam's rights in the hearing. While convincing enough in the role, the script doesn't do him any favors, which also holds true for Laura Dern ("Novocaine," "Dr. T & The Women") as the foster mom. Meanwhile, Wiest's part feels as if some of it was either overlooked or left on the cutting room floor.

Despite having some decent moments, the right intentions, and fine performances by Penn and Fanning, the film's various problems ultimately and collectively undermine its overall effectiveness and the touching tale it's trying to tell. "I Am Sam" thus rates as just a 4 out of 10.

Reviewed December 7, 2001 / Posted January 25, 2002

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