I know that title isn't very descriptive, but all I could say for awhile after watching I Am Sam was, "Wow!" Although that's a positive endorsement of the film--it's rare that a film has me basically speechless afterward (I usually suffer from logorrhea, which sounds close enough to diarrhea that you could call it (verbal) flatulence instead if you like)--it turned out to be quite a problem, because we went to dinner right afterward and I had to give a lecture. I believe I was served some kind of raw beef, and I have an exorbitant dry cleaning bill from the tomatoes and rotten eggs.
But I won't bill director/co-writer Jessie Nelson, because it's not her fault that her film is so powerful and so stunningly constructed that it made me monosyllabic. I can only blame myself for putting off watching her work for so long.
I Am Sam begins with Sam Dawson (Sean Penn) at his job. He lives in Santa Monica and works at Starbucks. We can see that he's mentally retarded. He appears slightly autistic. Because of this, he's given only menial tasks to do. Suddenly, his boss tells him that he has to go. We see Sam running through the streets, catching buses and so on to end up at a hospital. A woman is in labor and it turns out that he's the father, but she wants nothing to do with him afterward--apparently, it was something like a one night stand. She abandons him with the baby. Aided by a quartet of developmentally disabled friends and his agoraphobic neighbor, Annie Cassell (Dianne Wiest), we see Sam doing his best to raise the girl, Lucy Diamond Dawson (eventually played by Dakota Fanning)--so named because Sam is a big Beatles fan. At least until he is "accidentally arrested". Government officials question his ability to raise his daughter, and I Am Sam becomes the tale of Sam's legal battle to retain custody of Lucy, aided by high profile lawyer Rita Harrison (Michelle Pfeiffer).
I Am Sam will likely make you say, "Wow!" afterward because it is a masterpiece on every artistic and technical level.
All of the major cast members give one of the best performances of their careers, and many of these actors have had a number of artistic triumphs on their résumés. Sean Penn is completely natural and believable as a developmentally disabled man. Two of the men playing his friends really were developmentally disabled, having been found at L.A. Goal, a non-profit agency dedicated to helping such people through a variety of programs, and it's next to impossible to tell them apart from the other actors. Nelson and her co-writer, Kristine Johnson, spent a lot of time at L.A. Goal doing research, as did Penn. Pfeiffer perfectly executes a complex character who has to undergo a number of far reaching transformations and even a breakdown of sorts. As for Fanning, I haven't seen her in a film yet where she didn't threaten to steal the whole thing from her senior, much more experienced colleagues, and during the filming of I Am Sam she was only 6 or 7. Wiest, Richard Schiff, Laura Dern and others also turn in very complex performances that convey characters with deep, multifaceted histories, despite their relatively little screen time.
Nelson approaches the film with a number of unusual artistic and technical angles that all work wonderfully. The cinematography is mostly hand-held work. Unlike similar attempts in films such as Lars Von Trier's Dogville (2003), the hand-held work never feels affected or intrusive here--it's completely "organic". The most common purpose of the unusual cinematography is to give the viewer almost a subjective sense of what it's like to be Sam, to experience the world in the way he does. Cinematographer Elliot Davis moves his camera in a way closely mirrored with Sean Penn's movements. There's an additional emotional symbolism. When Sam is feeling agitated, the camera-work is agitated. Likewise when Sam is confused, pensive, and so on. Davis shoots from a lot of unusual angles. All of them work.
Nelson also has the editing, lighting and production design match the aesthetic of the cinematography. The editing is sometimes very choppy, but always feels "natural", just right for conveying Sam's experience. Sometimes there are odd incongruencies between sound and image, or between temporal sequences. The lighting, camera angles and production design often make some elements appropriately fantastical. The production design and costuming match not only Sam's world, but other characters' worlds, as well. Not one aspect of the film seems to have gone by without close examination and artistic justification.
The music, which largely consists of Beatles tunes performed by other artists, fits the film perfectly. Sam and his friends are all a bit obsessed with the Beatles (and apparently, so were many L.A. Goal members when Nelson visited). The Beatles tunes exquisitely match the various moods of the film, and the lyrics often complement emotions and actions.
But even above all of that, I Am Sam tells a heart-wrenching story that's something of an exciting, emotional roller-coaster. There are many humorous scenes, often centered on Sam and his buddies going about the world with a kind of Winnie the Pooh-like wisdom that seems more honest and admirable than most of the film's "normal" folks. Of course, there are also many scenes that will require tissues for tears. And there's just about every emotion in between the two.
Finally, the film has a great message. Does parenting, or general personal worth, really hinge on intellectual ability and amassed knowledge? I don't think so. Parents who are very smart can have more than their share of flaws, as we see with Pfeiffer's character early on. Plenty of us had parents who were smart enough but couldn't help us with our geometry homework. Love may not be all you need, but it's definitely one of the major prerequisites.