A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What 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.
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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.
Talk to your kids 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?
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