I Am Sam Movie Poster Image

I Am Sam

Moving but unrealistic film has mature themes, profanity.
Popular with kids
  • Rated: PG-13
  • Genre: Drama
  • Release Year: 2002
  • Running Time: 132 minutes

What parents need to know

Positive messages

Provides a very sympathetic look at the developmentally disabled community and shows elements of both their limitations and strengths. Promotes love, commitment, and good intentions as primary values in parenting and at the same time affirms that "it takes a village to raise a child."


Positive role models

Insightful portrait of a mentally challenged father. With few resources and against all odds, his courage, industriousness, sensitivity, and unlimited capacity for love help him live well beyond the world's expectations. Several characters representing legal and social service agencies are narrowly drawn as cold and with little empathy.


Tense family situations.


Mild references to out-of-wedlock pregnancy, adultery.


Sam, the film's hero, is referred to as "retarded" in some scenes. One leading female character swears several times: "goddammit," "hell,"  "for Christ's sake," "son of a bitch," "up the wazoo," "screw." There is one use of "f--k."


Starbucks is a featured location in numerous sequences. Other products and retailers clearly identified include Equal sweetener, Huggies, Payless, Baskin-Robbins, Tab, Pizza Hut, Bob's Big Boy, and IHOP.

Drinking, drugs, & smoking
Not applicable

Parents Need to Know

Parents need to know that I Am Sam portrays a mentally challenged man and his impassioned efforts to parent and retain custody of his precocious young daughter. There are several heartwrenching scenes during which Sam and Lucy are forcibly taken from one another. Other characters (two of whom are actually developmentally disabled) give insightful performances that may enlighten older kids and teens about people with special needs. A female character swears occasionally: one use of "f--k," along with numerous instances of "goddammit," "hell," and other mild epithets. Starbucks is prominently featured as Sam's workplace, and many other products and retailers are identified.

What's the story?

In I AM SAM, Sam Dawson (Sean Penn), a mentally challenged man who wipes the tables at Starbucks, decides to fight for custody of his daughter, Lucy (Dakota Fanning). Although Lucy's mother, a homeless woman, leaves right after Lucy is born, Sam does just fine at first, with help from an agoraphobic neighbor (Dianne Wiest). Sam also gets some help from an entourage of friends, and all goes along pretty well until Lucy, at age 7, begins to surpass Sam intellectually. When Family Protective Services try to take Lucy away, Sam gets intense lawyer Rita Harrison (Michelle Pfeiffer) to help him. And, sure enough, she learns from Sam to take time to smell the roses and play with her own son.

Is it any good?


If only the filmmakers had trusted the material and the audience a little more, then I Am Sam wouldn't feel so manipulative and dishonest. But by making anyone who thinks that maybe a child needs more than a mentally challenged parent can provide look like a monster, they turn the characters into cardboard. The glowing last scene, with Sam performing in a role that's clearly beyond what he has been shown to be capable of, is just phony.

But Penn gives a first-rate performance, and Pfeiffer holds her own. In smaller parts, Wiest, Richard Schiff, Mary Steenburgen, and Laura Dern all are very fine as well, and the soundtrack of Beatles songs recorded by some of today's best artists is a genuine treat. The real miracle of the movie, though, is young Fanning, who gives a performance of such sincerity, subtlety, and delicacy that she almost carries the entire movie herself.

Families can talk about...

  • Families can talk about what Sam should do to give Lucy everything she needs. What problems are they likely to have as she gets older?

  • What did Rita learn from Sam, and why was it only Sam who could teach it to her?

  • A number of the people in the movie struggle with parenting issues -- there has never been a court proceeding in history that permitted such discussion of the family lives of all the participants and witnesses. How do you see those struggles in the families around you?

Movie details

Theatrical release date:January 25, 2002
DVD/Streaming release date:June 18, 2002
Cast:Dakota Fanning, Michelle Pfeiffer, Sean Penn
Director:Jessie Nelson
Studio:Warner Bros.
Run time:132 minutes
MPAA rating:PG-13
MPAA explanation:language

This review of I Am Sam was written by

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Teen, 17 years old Written byHolyfire November 18, 2009
i love this movie cos of the message it passes across to everyone.it is a movie that teaches parents to love and create time for their children and all cost.it teaches love (healty)and the power of true friendship
What other families should know
Too much swearing
Great messages
Great role models
Adult Written byjumpinbini April 9, 2008
I liked this movie mainly because of the way it portrays people who are mentally disabled. I feel that when people think of the mentally disabled that they automatically think that they are incapable of many things. This movie shows that there are many fully functioning people who are mentally disabled. Another message that I took from the movie is that sometimes people get wrapped up in their work and lose sight of things that are important to them such as their children or their marriage. And sometimes it takes a step back to see the bigger picture. A good movie about love and the great lengths that people will go to retain it.
Teen, 13 years old Written bymovieboss August 18, 2011

I was moved two blocks.

Full of good messages... and bad language. A moving film, too. Will teach kids about the hardships of actually being retarded. One use of f--k and multiple uses of god---n. For those who are dating, this is an absolute date movie.
What other families should know
Too much swearing