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I Am Sam (Jessie Nelson) 2001 

When Jessie Nelson’s I am Sam begins with a scene of its titular, mentally retarded character being made to change a diaper, my eyes didn’t just roll… they did somersaults. No man in any movie ever has been able to change a diaper (or program an answering machine) successfully, so to show a disabled man attempting this Herculean task smacked of sadism. Thankfully then, there aren’t many of this kind of scene, as the movie quickly finds a more comfortable groove. Sam (Sean Penn) is a relatively self-sufficient guy that’s got the IQ of a seven year old. His handicap never seems to become a major problem until he ends up with a child of mysterious origin and she turns seven, beginning to surpass him intellectually. The horribly evil child welfare office steps in at this point, and the stage is set for a series of courtroom custody battles. 

Surely I can acknowledge that I Am Sam is basically manipulative trash, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not good in some ways either. Certainly the acting is better than average, with Michelle Pfeiffer’s Rita, a high strung lawyer that learns to slow down a bit, edging out Sean Penn’s Sam, whose performance is fine, but ultimately a bit of a stunt. Think of his work as better than Hoffman’s in Rain Man, but worse than Day-Lewis’ in My Left Foot. The film attempts to shed a bit of ambiguity on the question of who is right here, and that’s somewhat admirable, even if it stacks the deck a little. Less successful is the film’s shoddy direction. Emotional highpoints become an editing nightmare, presumably to show the conflict that the actors feel, but in effect becoming detrimental to the performances. 

Ultimately, though, the movie is saved by an influx of comedy that keeps things from feeling too unfairly manipulative. Although a few of the laughs are at the characters’ expense (Sam’s group of retarded friends seem a deliberate and phony cross section of mental disorders), at least it tries to make us laugh, unlike this season’s other mental illness movie, the overly noble A Beautiful Mind. There are some doubts as to whether the screenplay’s continued admiration for the lead during his plight are really right, but the compromise of the ending of the film manages to alleviate a lot of those fears. For a custody battle movie to explicitly invoke Kramer vs. Kramer repeatedly is quite bold, and if there’s nothing here that quite measures up to the complexity of Meryl Streep’s performance in that movie, it doesn’t pale too terribly in comparison. 



Jeremy Heilman