Mouth in a perpetual state of awe, eyes staring halfway into their lids, his walk is stilted, as if the top half of his body is more excited to get there than the bottom half. Sam Dawson (Sean Penn) is a man the intellectual age of a 7-year-old who moves through the world riding on Beatles analogies, as if every little moment in life is a possible wonderland. Busing tables at Starbucks for income, he lives alone, until he finds himself the father of Lucy Diamond Dawson (Dakota Fanning). It’s a match made inside a Beatles ballad, until complications set in when Lucy begins to surpass her father’s mental capacity.
I Am Sam is a labor of love on all levels. Director Jessie Nelson (director of Corrina, Corrina and co-author of Stepmom and The Story of Us) co-wrote the script with screenwriter Kristine Johnson, inspired and educated by visits to L.A. Goal, a center that serves adults with developmental disabilities in Los Angeles. As a result, two members of L.A. Goal, Brad Allan Silverman and Joe Rosenberg, play characters based on themselves as part of Sam’s circle of friends, and no one could do it better.
The precocious Fanning is already making a well-earned name for herself by possessing acting abilities far beyond her 7 years. Michelle Pfeiffer is perfect as Rita, the high-profile, high-tempered, stress-fueled, callous Century City lawyer. And although it’s apparent that her acting abilities fall short of reaching the depths of Penn’s when they go head to head, the discrepancy suits the characters.
Sam has a slightly Hollywood-formulaic aura about it, with its courtroom drama and pieces conveniently falling into place. One could complain that this is just a showcase for Penn, but, damn it, why not give him a vehicle?! The guy puts his whole psyche and soul into a role. He’s not just playing retarded — he is retarded. From Spicoli in Fast Times at Ridgemont High to Matthew Poncelet in Dead Man Walking to Eddie in She’s So Lovely, the man transmogrifies from the inside out. It even seems as if Penn changes his face somehow.
But perhaps the most valuable aspect of this film is its contrast of innocence and truth against a far-too-serious and jaded adult perspective, reminding us not to forget that the mind-set we originally came from is a reservoir of relief and solution.
Anita Schmaltz writes about the arts for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].