Published Dec 01, 2001Sean Penn is Sam, a mentally challenged single-father who is deemed, on account of his disability, to be an unfit parent by a social worker, and is thus forced to fight for the custody of his daughter. By fortune's way, he procures the legal assistance of Rita Harrison (Michelle Pheiffer), a self-absorbed perfectionist whose obsessive behaviour has alienated her from her own child. Sam's storied struggle, and Rita's predictable character arc are "I Am Sam," a film you've as much as seen by judging from the cover.
Predictable as the tale is, there are some surprises in the way that it's told, specifically in its cinematography and pacing. The camera work is predominantly hand-held, with an over-emphasis put on making the film look unpolished. And yet, as the frame darts asymmetrically between characters, the resultant effect resonates less of the candour of an independent film than it does of co-optation and manipulation. Likewise, it's difficult to see the patience with which the story unravels as anything but a sentimental ploy. "I Am Sam" undulates slowly with the will to disarm you of your cynicism, and conquer you with the sentiment of its tag line: "Love is all you need." Towards that end, the film is smart enough never to become cloying, but only one that is truly desperate can remain unaware of the charlatan behind the curtain as he melts into the many close-ups of Sam's daughter's beautifully blue, whale-sized eyes.
Michelle Pheiffer is so good you want to save her from the movie, mostly because you'd like to be her hero. Before Sam's presence softens her character and dulls her acting, she portrays the brittleness and socially acceptable madness of a go-getter without miss. Her embodiment of both an overachiever's iciness and self-hated pedestrianism give her character a realism that underlines just how mawkish the rest of the film is. Sean Penn is believable in his role. Beyond that, who's to tell? Surely giving Tom Hanks the Oscar for "Forrest Gump" seems more ridiculous to the Academy every time they think back on it, but I have a feeling they're destined to make the same schmaltzy mistake with Penn. What can I say? His handicap shines.