I am Sam (2001) with Sean Penn is being used in college sociology, psychology and English classes to help students explore the complex nature of love, parenting, intelligence and other important themes addressed in the film. Here is a movie review cum essay cum psychological/sociological analysis written on the film.
Love, Intelligence, Parenthood in I am Sam
‘All you need is love’ is both a song by The Beatles and also a major theme of director Jessie Nelson’s 2001 film I am Sam, produced by New Line Cinema. I am Sam is the story of a developmentally disabled and autistic man, Sam Dawson, who fathers a child with a homeless woman. The baby’s mother runs away immediately after the baby’s birth, leaving Sam, holding the baby. Sam has the mentality of a seven year old, but the common sense, compassion and determination of a mature adult.
Despite his disabilities, Sam manages to raise his baby daughter Lucy, with the help of his friend Annie a reclusive pianist on his janitor salary from Starbucks. Sam’s friends, four disabled adult men welcome and love Lucy and the little group bumbles along taking care of Lucy in their own funny, endearing way. Sam and Lucy have a lovely relationship.
However at Lucy’s seventh birthday party, friends from school are invited and several mock Sam and Lucy. Seeing Lucy hurt and angry, Sam justifiably berates the offending child. The child’s parents’ already uncomfortable with Sam, target him as unfit father. Lucy is removed from Sam’s home and placed in court protection while the custody issue is resolved.
Sam attempts to hire an attorney, Rita Harrison who completely blows him off as a nut case. Rita is known as a cold ruthless lawyer only after her own interests. She’s high-powered, intense, angry and obsessive. Rita’s husband has virtually abandoned the marriage and she is left to care for her son Willie who is very angry at her. In an effort to improve her image, Rita lies saying that she does take pro bono (free, charity, without pay) cases. Sam arrives to again plead for her help, and Rita is caught in her lie and forced to take on Sam’s case.
Thus begins Sam’s fight for Lucy and Rita’s relationship with Sam, whose love, devotion and goodness overwhelms her. Rita says later to Sam that he, ‘did much more for me than I have for you.’ Sam Dawson is just that kind of person that you can’t get to know without loving.
I am Sam has some brilliant casting to it’s credit. Michelle Pfieffer is the quintessential smart, angry driven lawyer. Lucy Diamond Dawson is portrayed flawlessly by Dakota Fanning. Sam’s reclusive friend Annie is portrayed with haunting eloquence by Dianne Wiest. Sam’s four video night buddies were cast with stroke of genius and each deserve Oscars themselves: Brad Allen Silverman, Joseph Rosenberg, Stanley DiSantis and Doug Hutchinson. Who wouldn’t want these guys to ‘have your back’?
But the best, the very best surprise of all, the trip to the ice cream parlor on a summer night was Sam himself, portrayed by none other than the Hollywood bad boy legend, Sean Penn. You could have knocked me down with a feather when I saw his performance. We have this kind of ongoing argument thing at my house: what non-mentally impaired actor best portrays a handicapped person? The nominees are Dustin Hoffman-Rainman, Leonardo DiCaprio –What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?, Tom Hanks- Forrest Gump, John Malkovich – Of Mice and Men, Cuba Gooding, Jr.- Radio and Sean Penn- I am Sam. I was in some doubt until I watched I am Sam again. Now, no doubt. Penn all the way.
Sam is the ‘piece de resistance’ Accidental Hero. He didn’t set out to move any mountains. He just wanted to care for his child. And I guess in a way, raising a child really is a heroic feat. Sam kept Lucy safe, he provided for all her needs. He laughed and played and read to her. Sam himself sums up his role, when the lawyer asks who he would use as his role model for fatherhood. Sam thinks a moment. He’s clearly had some very negative father figures: his own father who abandoned he and his mother, several of the guards at the institution, Annie’s clearly horrific father, Rita’s husband (Willie’s father). Sam knows who he does not want to be like. Finally, Sam decides ‘ I am.’ Sam himself is the father he wants to be like. The movie title says it I am Sam.’ It could be subtitled A Father’s Story.
I am Sam has several interwoven themes. Love is all you need. Not a certain IQ. Not a college degree. To be a father, you need to have love. When asked what it meant to be a father, what Lucy needed from a father, no one was really able to put it clearly into words. The retarded men were scorned because they quoted movies. But really, can anyone put it into words? As Sam and Rita proved, many obstacles to parenting could be overcome: tutoring, a strong support network. Even help from Randy to be the mother figure for Lucy. All parents of every intelligence level need those. But the one thing that only Sam could give Lucy was the love of a father.
Positive personal identity is another theme. Finding who you are. Learning to love who you are. Learning to let others love you. Learning to give love. Rita learned from Sam that she was loved. She was acceptable and lovable as she was. When I really watched Rita’s behavior she exhibited some really bizarre, institutional behavior. Her life was austere and frenetic. She was obsessive, on the edge and freakishly organized. Food stuffing as Rita did with the marshmallows is ritualistic, perseverative behavior. She wasn’t so much eating them as squirreling them away. Rita also took little things and hid them in her pocket; valueless things like the jellybeans and coffee creamers. These are autistic behaviors. Sam was a salvation for Rita; he pulled her back from the brink of a mental breakdown. What really does define a ‘good parent’ or a healthy parent?
Sam discovered that he was very happy to be himself. That his IQ did not have any affect on the love he was able to give. It’s interesting that Sam so loved the book Green Eggs and Ham. Yes, it was a book he could read, unlike Stellaluna which was more challenging. But Green Eggs and Ham is about persistence. It is about working hard to give someone something that will be good for them and make them happy even if at first they refuse. It’s about standing up for what you believe in. Green Eggs and Ham is about bringing people out of themselves to a happier place.
There are many bird images in I am Sam: the origami birds and those in Lucy’s pictures. The birds are metaphors for the wonder of love as expressed by Sam. Sam’s thoughts, words and actions are slowed by his disabilities. But they aren’t crippled or dead. The birds represent the soaring of Sam’s spirit and soul; what we can only see with the eyes of the love. I like the way that the story of Stellaluna was woven into the film. It fits with the bird theme in a different and unique way. When you first think of Stellaluna, it might seem that the bat family is odd and different, like Sam is different. It might seem that Lucy wants to get away from Sam and fly with the birds. But the real point of Stellaluna is that we are all different and we all have special wonderful ways. As Sam said, ‘in some ways I am smarter than Lucy, you (Rita), Mr. Turner and maybe even the judge.’
The music and lives of The Beatles are a major influence on the movie I am Sam. There are hundreds of references to The Beatles and their music. The Beatles are a focal point for Sam’s life. Lucy is named Lucy Diamond Dawson after the Beatles song, Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.
There is so much Beatles influence in I am Sam, that it obviously has deep significance. At the beginning of the movie Sam quotes snippets of Beatles trivia in response to questions or comments. But as the movie progresses, Sam quotes less and less Beatles trivia and begins to speak for himself. When he gets stressed he reverts to the Beatles as a comfort zone or anchor. The Beatles trivia is a sort of support for Sam. It’s there when he needs it, but as he gains self-confidence, he finds that he, Sam Dawson is okay on his own.
I am Sam succeeds for me on many levels. It was really important to me that it didn’t all just work out dandy after the trial. Sam broke down and panicked as I am sure many of us would. When Sam didn’t visit Lucy and missed his scheduled visits at Randy’s house, that was indicative that Sam really was a viable, capable parent. Why? Because a real parent would feel that pain and exclusion. Had Sam just doggedly kept up with the visits, it would have seemed sort of wooden and forgive me but, retarded.
A thinking, caring person would have his equanimity shaken all to pieces by the horrible trial Sam had to endure. And he come out of the whole ordeal still seeing the good in people, like Randy who was systematically turning his daughter from him. I really like the little parade back and forth past the 7-11. And when Randy was won over by Sam’s love in the end, he wasn’t bitter at all. He welcomed her into their little family. To me that’s what showed his depth of character.
I am Sam is an excellent film to use in psychology, sociology, English, fimography, education and parenting classes. I’ll state unequivocally that Sam Dawson is a model father.