Sam Dawson (Sean Penn) works at the local Starbucks, not as a coffee server, nor as a cash register clerk, but as a dining room janitor. You see, Sam is an adult with the mind of a 7-year-old who has just experienced the birth of his daughter as the product of a one-night stand with a homeless woman. The baby's mother exclaims, "I only wanted a place to sleep" as she disappears, leaving Sam to raise the child himself. Does a mentally disabled individual, without the mental capacity to even run a cash register, have the right, much less the capability to raise a child?
Should we as a society, allow mentally disabled individuals to raise children? I Am Sam makes a compelling argument that love is the most important ingredient in raising a child, and as we learn from Sam, mentally challenged individuals are definitely capable of giving love. Penn's performance as Sam must be mentioned alongside that of Dustin Hoffman as Rain Man's Raymond Babbitt. It is that good! Many contend that it is easy for an actor to perform in the role of a mentally challenged individual, as the actor must only perform his craft in a one-dimensional range of human emotions.
My contention is that an actor's true abilities shine when he/she is asked to perform outside of the range of common, everyday human interaction. Although Sam has his peculiarities and autistic routines that should not be disrupted - Wednesday is video night, Thursday is dinner at IHOP, Friday is karaoke night - he manages to spend much time with his daughter, Lucy (Dakota Fanning). He named her after The Beatles' Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds and he is very successful at providing for her emotional needs.
As she turns eight-years-old and begins to surpass the intellectual capacity of her father, government authorities want to take her away. Remember the name Dakota Fanning. She delivers a mesmerizing performance that is guaranteed to garner her many leading roles to come. She has that magical spark in her eye and her working chemistry with Penn allows their performances to rise above the screen. Their cohesiveness reminds me of that between Sam Rockwell and Mischa Barton in Lawn Dogs. To fight the social service workers who want to place Lucy in a foster home, Sam must retain the services of an attorney.
Enter Rita Harrison (Michelle Pfeiffer), a high-powered, selfish attorney who takes on his case on a pro-bono basis just to show her fellow litigators that she does indeed have a heart. Pfeiffer excels in her role almost as if drawing from real-life experience to deliver her performance. We also see Laura Dern deliver a short but sharp presentation as the foster mother who attempts to adopt Lucy. I Am Sam is a brilliant look at a heartbreaking subject that demands the viewer to examine both sides of the controversy.
The story is sprinkled with interesting, and unique characters, and a wonderful soundtrack featuring many of today's popular artists giving their rendition of Beatles' tunes. The whole story is threaded with Beatles references that connect the characters to the story and provides a layer of familiarity for the viewer. Because of its full range of human emotions explored, I give I Am Sam the highest rating in the Julia Roberts factor. Not much there to give it a significant macho factor though save for Michelle Pfeiffer. Safe for the kids and safe for the in-laws.