I Am Sam

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The ViewAuckland Review

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Review byMatthew Turner5/08/2002

Three out of five stars
Running time: 132 mins

Shamelessly manipulative, but nonetheless enjoyable drama, thanks to a deservedly Oscar-nominated performance by Penn and sterling support from Michelle Pfeiffer.

Sean Penn received his third Best Actor nomination for his performance in I Am Sam and it was one of a small handful of movies (along with Monster’s Ball) that still hadn’t opened in the UK come Oscar-time. However, now that it has finally arrived in the UK, audiences have the chance to judge for themselves whether or not Penn was robbed at the Oscars.

Penn plays Sam Dawson, a cleaner at Starbucks with the mental age of a young child. As the film opens he is witnessing the birth of his own daughter, having ‘accidentally’ gotten a homeless woman pregnant after offering her a place to stay. However, the mother, after giving birth, immediately deserts both Sam and daughter, leaving him to raise her by himself.

Luckily, Sam has a support network of similarly disabled friends and they manage to raise the daughter, Lucy (played by impressive newcomer Dakota Fanning) by themselves.

In particular, Sam gets a lot of help from his reclusive shut-in neighbour, Dianne Weist, who teaches Sam a lot of life-lessons with the aid of Beatles songs. This, in turn, is nicely reflected in the cleverly integrated soundtrack, which features several Beatles songs covered by various bands.

Eventually, however, Lucy starts to surpass Sam in her mental abilities and when the authorities step in, Sam turns to brittle lawyer Rita Harrison (Michelle Pfeiffer) in a bid to gain custody. A sort of Kramer vs Gump, if you will.

The problem with playing a mentally disabled character is that the actor is automatically accused of Oscar-baiting. However, though Penn’s performance is undeniably showy, it is nonetheless impressive – think Daniel Day Lewis in My Left Foot rather than Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man. It takes a few minutes to adjust to, but you genuinely feel you’re watching Sam the character, rather than Sean the actor.

The supporting cast are great, too, particularly Pfeiffer (although the line about her husband “screwing someone more attractive than me” takes some swallowing – this scene is easily the worst in the film). At any rate, it’s great to see her in something decent again. There’s also great support from the likes of Laura Dern and Dianne Weist and Dakota Fanning is extremely adorable – the montage of scenes where she leaves her foster home to walk to Sam’s house is one of the film’s highlights.

The film is definitely manipulative but, if you’re prepared to go along with that, it’s very enjoyable. It’s also extremely funny in places, such as in the scene where Sam and his friends try to work out how to use his new answering machine.

In short, I Am Sam is well made and well acted, though it is unashamedly geared towards your tear-ducts. If you surrender yourself to its manipulations, it’s an enjoyable drama that’s worth seeing for a standout performance by Penn. Great soundtrack, too.

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I Am Sam
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Content updated: 13/12/2018 09:16

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