Sam lives alone. He works at a Starbucks. And his mental capacity is that of a 7-year-old. Sam is also a father. And he has raised his little girl (named Lucy Diamond after the Beatles song) alone for seven years, ever since her mother ran away days after her birth. You wouldn’t think he could do it, the diapers, the feedings, the potty-training. But he does. And he freely gives Lucy all the love he possesses. He adores her, and she adores him right back.
"Daddy, did God mean for you to be like this? Or was it an accident?" Lucy asks Sam one day. "What do you mean?" he replies, perplexed. "You’re not like other people," she says. Scared, and worried that Lucy is telling him she thinks he’s dumb, Sam begins to apologize. "I’m sorry, I’m sorry," he repeats. "It’s okay, Daddy, don’t be sorry," Lucy is quick to assure him. "I’m lucky. Nobody else’s daddy ever comes to the park." Lucy already understands what the courts don’t; that love can be the most powerful force on earth.
It’s on her seventh birthday that they come to take her away. Child Services has decided Sam is not fit to be her father any more. In 30 days, they tell him, you’ll come back for a hearing so that the judge can decide what to do with Lucy. "You mean, she’s not coming home with me tonight?" he wails. No, she’s not going home with you tonight.
Sam knows he needs a lawyer, so he and his friends look through the Yellow Pages to find a good one. The coolest ad there leads him to Rita, a driven, out-of-sorts, hurl-insults-at-the-traffic sort of attorney. She doesn’t want anything to do with him ("You can’t afford me!" she snaps) and sends him packing. But a mixture of guilt and peer pressure force her to reconsider and she eventually takes the case pro bono. "That’s for free," she tells him.
The balance of the movie shows Sam fighting for his daughter. Rita fighting for her soul. And Lucy running away from her foster parents to be with Daddy.
positive elements: Life is supremely valued here. Disabilities, handicaps, inconveniences, disinterest, none of those things negate life’s intrinsic value. Sam knows that instinctively. Rita must learn the hard way. Lucy is truly a diamond in the sky for Sam. The filmmakers may not have intended for her to become such a symbol of life, but it’s impossible for me not to make her one. So many children have been discarded for lessor "reasons" than her parents could have given. Her mother was homeless. Her father incapable of adult responsibilities. She should not have been allowed into the world. At least that’s the way the argument goes. Sam silently screams, "No! She is my daughter. I love her."
Sam demonstrates to everyone watching that what the culture views as curses can be turned into blessings. Rita’s journey toward humanness includes the awakening of her true maternity (her son has become an obligation to her rather than a joy), patience (her life is rife with immediate demands) and compassion.
The movie may present an overly-romanticized picture of a mentally disabled man raising a child, but it also shows the world how to embrace just such a man (or woman). "I don’t know what to call you," blurts Rita, after stumbling over the terms "handicapped," "retarded" and "challenged." Sam’s reply is simple and profound: "You can call me Sam."
Sam also doles out amazingly wise advice on the subject of parenting: "I’ve had a lot of time to think about what makes somebody a good parent," he tells the court. "It’s about constancy. It’s about patience. It’s about listening. It’s about pretending to listen even when you can’t listen anymore. And it’s about love." Sam’s unique view of the world cuts cleanly through the lies that invade so much of what we do. In the courtroom, he is appalled when Rita makes a witness cry by dredging up her past to discredit her. He is perplexed by the notion of "tweaking" the facts to manipulate the truth.
spiritual content: Overtly, the only spiritual content is a simple two word prayer for his daughter. Sam cries, "Please God, please God, please God." But the celebration of life and love that infuse the entire film are straight from heaven.
sexual content: Obviously Sam had to sleep with Lucy’s mother, but that happens nine months before the film begins. A prostitute (who shows quite a bit of cleavage) comes on to Sam in a restaurant, but he is completely unaware that her "friendliness" is anything more than friendly. In tears, Rita tells Sam that her husband is "screwing" other women.
violent content: Right before Lucy is taken away from him at her birthday party, Sam is pushed down by an angry parent. Rita kicks a bowl of candy across her office. She also kicks in Sam’s door when he won’t answer it.
crude or profane language: One f-word expressed in anger and frustration. God’s name is abused more than a dozen times. There are also five or six other mild profanities and coarse expressions. Rita makes an obscene gesture to a passing motorist.
drug and alcohol content: Rita and her peers drink champagne at a party.
conclusion: Reactions to I Am Sam are likely to be varied. Critics are split over whether it is a gripping triumph or a sudsy melodrama. Peter Travers of Rolling Stone calls it "contrived, manipulative and shamelessly sentimental," while The Los Angeles Times’ Kevin Thomas writes that it is "inviting and accessible." Moviegoers will similarly lean strongly one way or the other upon leaving the theater. What’s indisputable is that Sean Penn turns in a dazzling performance, thoroughly losing himself in Sam (just as Dustin Hoffman did in Rain Man and Leonardo DiCaprio did in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape). One other thing is incontrovertible: I Am Sam will make you think.
Should Sam be allowed to continue raising Lucy? You see the story from Sam’s perspective, so your empathy lies with him. But you still agonize over whether he can do it alone. The events unfold and the court makes its decisions and the lives of the characters go on. But you continue playing out Sam’s case in your head. Sam is turned into a real person. Confined within the movie’s 130 minutes, he’s neither a statistic nor a hypothetical scenario. And that creates a valuable exercise for those of us not usually faced with such life-altering quandaries. It’s valuable to put yourself in the shoes of someone else for a day. It’s valuable to ponder the moral what-ifs of foster care, adoption and abortion. It’s valuable to see the world through different eyes, be they Lucy’s, Rita’s or Sam’s. I Am Sam’s occasionally profane language is a disappointment. Its message is not.