I Am Sam
A Review by Mark McLeod
July 1st 2002
Sam Dawson (Sean Penn) is a mentally challenged man who holds down a job at a local Starbucks restaurant. Due to his abilities he is unable to handle the task of making all the different types of coffee so he is employed simply as a janitor who cleans up spills, mops the floor and does some moderate straightening up around the place. He's a personable fellow and often comments on various customers drinks of choice. He seems to have a real connection with the customers and is a valuable part of the Starbucks team. His work is his life which is made all the more evident when Sam forgets to go to the hospital to meet up with this mother of his baby. At the hospital Sam witnesses the birth of his daughter from a homeless woman who wanted nothing more from Sam then a warm place to sleep. The unnamed woman abandons Sam with the young girl leaving Sam to raise Lucy all on his own. There is no doubt that Sam loves his daughter but the challenges it brings are more then he can handle and while he does his best to deal with them they soon become more he can bare. Years pass and Lucy now seven is beginning to really notice how different her father is as it becomes more difficult for him to help her with her school work. The school also begins to take notice of this and alerts the Department of Children and Family Services who begin to look into the situation. Before long they hand down a ruling that places Lucy in foster care for the period of one month before the formal trial can begin. Sam is devastated and on the advice of his other similarly abled friends seek out the advice of a lawyer. They settle on Rita Harrison (Michelle Pfeiffer) a high powered and well regarded attorney that specializes in child custody cases. She initially turns down the case but agrees to handle the case pro-bono after she is seen talking to Sam at an office party. As she begins to prepare the case it becomes clear that her relationship with her son is anything but perfect and that her workaholic lifestyle has created a great divide in her family situation. Regaining sole custody won't be an easy fight for Sam as there are very few witnesses that could provide compelling testimony on Sam's behalf. Although the odds are stacked against them Sam and Rita try their best to reunite Lucy with her father even if it's only in a limited capacity.
The film "I Am Sam" finds itself in a difficult genre for most male movie goers and that is the emotional melodrama/tear jerker that have most males running for the exits while their female companions use up entire boxes of tissues as they sob away at the tragic situation of the main characters. While I don't always find myself in that generalized grouping there are times when I can't overcome the stereotype and fall victim to genre's faults. By definition films that find themselves categorized in as "tear jerkers" are overly manipulative and use a standard set of techniques to drag the viewer into feeling a certain way at various points throughout the film. "I Am Sam" directed by Jessie Nelson falls into this trap at almost every turn as her direction takes away the viewers ability to create their own thoughts and feelings and replaces them with a manufactured set. Nelson does this by turning up the style meter to full power and thus creates a film that uses every available trick to coax the viewer in the correct way. This starts with the cinematography by Elliott Davis who shoots almost all of the film on hand held cameras. The hand helds are supposed to place viewers right in the midst of Sam's world but instead they do almost the opposite and create a distance between the subject and the audience. The visuals also use color to try and affect ones emotions by using two distinct color schemes in the film. At times the film has a warm almost golden glow to it which I feel symbolizes love. Then there are times when the film is bathed in blue to give a cold and almost distant type quality to the proceedings. If that's not enough pulling or pushing to feel one way then the film's use of Beatles cover tunes will be. Every key sequence in "I Am Sam" is played out against a cover version of a Beatles song. It would be different if these songs were played in the background but the dialogue is almost dropped completely leaving the songs to tell the story. Being a music fan I've seen many films where the marriage of images and music has been perfect but Dylan uses it almost as a character itself. However this character takes the guess work out of the equation as it spells out exactly how you are supposed to react to the events happening on screen. Dylan also struggles with pacing as the film's early segments go by too quickly while the custody battle drags on and on with very little progress. It's also a bit troubling that a number of scenes are almost carbon copies of scenes used earlier in the film. A lot of this repetitive material involves Sam's scenes at the Starbucks where he consistently makes errors and spills drinks with little fanfare from the loyal customer base that has come to expect this as part of their daily visit.
Most of what makes "I Am Sam" work better then it probably should are the performances from a very talented cast which is lead by Sean Penn. Penn has come along way since his Spicoli days in "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" and is now considered one of Hollywood's top talents. Penn is very convincing in the role of Sam Dawson a mentally challenged man who just wants the best for his daughter. I don't really know many mentally challenged individuals although there is one that works at a McDonalds near a movie theater I frequent and when I ran into him after seeing this film I couldn't help but feel that Penn's performance was dead on. Penn embodies and faces all the same challenges that these truly remarkable individuals face on a day to day basis. The only difference is that at the end of the shoot Penn was able to return to the comfort of normal life. I've never been a huge fan of his work but to me he really sold the character of Sam Dawson to myself as an audience member. Michelle Pfeiffer is another actress whose work I haven't always enjoyed but she does an acceptable job in the stereotypical role of a female lawyer who only accepts the case to change how she is viewed by her co-workers. The character of Rita Harrison isn't particularly well written but Pfeiffer does make the best of her situation by giving a performance that makes us look past her obvious faults. The actress that really steals the show is young Dakota Fanning who in her debut performance as Lucy really gives us hope that not all child actors are just pretty faces. Fanning brings a warm approach to Lucy who clearly loves her father but at the same time knows that he will soon be unable to provide everything she needs. Also worth mentioning are supporting performances from Brad Allan Silverman and Joe Rosenberg who play Sam's friends Brad and Joe. Silverman and Rosenberg are both disabled actors and bring a level of sincerity to the production that you couldn't get by casting actors and having them play disabled.
"I Am Sam" is however not all misses as the screenplay by co-writers Jessie Nelson and Kristine Johnson has a few touching moments and for the most part seems to be based in reality. During pre-production Nelson and Johnson visited the LA Goal center in Los Angeles, California where they observed and befriended men and women with similar conditions to Sam. After spending months doing this research they crafted the screenplay using the personal experiences of those they met. This lends a real and unmanufactured quality to the film as the challenges Sam faces are unexaggerated. The strongest scenes in the film deal with Sam and his inability to truly understand that situations that he is placed in. He doesn't understand it when the judge won't allow Lucy to go home with him or grasp the consequences of when Lucy lies to him about it being ok to go on a bus trip together. These moments seem genuine because of the screenplay. However the nuances are lost when the screenplay is brought to life as co-writer/director Nelson tries to force the audience into feeling a certain way. Her stylistic choices, the use of music instead of dialogue during key sequences really harm the film. The material and performances for a stronger film are in place but the elements don't come together correctly. There are things to triumph in the film and there are things that just fall flat. "I Am Sam" is not a bad film it's just not at the level where it could have been. The performances are worth checking out and so is the screenplay but the final product is less then stellar. A conditional recommendation.
Movie Rating : 6/10
VIDEO:Released as part of New Line's Platinum Series collection "I Am Sam" features a 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer recreating the film's original theatrical presentation. It's always a pleasure to review a New Line disc because they have been the most consistent in terms of their video transfers. One can always expect a presentation of the highest quality from New Line and the transfer on "I Am Sam" is no exception although at first glance the look and feel of the film might be a bit off putting. "I Am Sam" is a very different looking film visually and strays from the sort of standard approach taken to an emotional melodrama. The film's cinematography by Elliott Davis consists of a lot of hand held camera work and the film's color palette is heavily manipulated to evoke certain feelings from the audience. That said when you look past the questionable stylistic choices of the director and production team the transfer is quite appealing. The transfer is up to the usual standards and as one would expect from a relatively new film as it features a nice sharp overall look and is finely detailed. In terms of a color palette the film really plays with the use of color and depending on the scene the colors are either warm and inviting or cold and muted. The same can be said for the flesh tones which for the most part appeared to be accurate though wavered slightly during the blue tinted courtroom scenes. Problems are limited to a minimal amount of edge enhancement, some slight film grain and some shimmer on some window blinds. However on the plus side no pixelation or print marks of any kind were seen. In short this is another technically strong transfer from New Line even if the film's visual style causes ones perceptions to be slightly altered.
Video Rating : 8.5/10
SOUND:"I Am Sam" is given a treatment fit for a king as New Line brings the film to DVD with a plethora of audio options including Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS 5.1 tracks. Since the film is essentially a drama I wasn't really expecting much in the way of an audio experience from "I Am Sam" and while I felt that the DTS track was a nice addition it by no means is a requirement for enjoying the film. The sound mix is mainly confined to the front of the sound stage though on occasion the rear channels do provide an adequate amount of ambience. There's no questioning that the dominant aspect of the film's audio experience is it's musical score which consists entirely of Beatles cover tunes by such artists as Ben Harper, Aimee Mann and Michael Penn and Sarah McLachlan. However the standout tune from the soundtrack is Eddie Veddar's You Got to Hide Your Love Away which plays out over one of the film's more intense emotional sequences. The multi channel audio mix really brings this song to life and it was as if I was hearing the sound for the first time. The use of the subwoofer channel is essentially non existent although there isn't really any need for it to be used in this film. Overall things this remains a music and dialogue driven soundtrack that sounds very appealing while still remaining a basic soundtrack. Comparing the DTS and DD mixes, DTS comes out the winner as it provided a more rich and enveloping approach to the music which is so important in this musically driven film. Regardless of which mix you choose you won't be disappointed with the sonics of the soundtrack.
Audio Rating : 8/10
EXTRAS: New Line releases "I Am Sam" as part of it's Platinum Series and while it boasts a few impressive extra features this disc is nowhere near as packed as some of the other discs in the line. That said the studio has always been known for providing extras of the finest quality instead of just slapping a bunch of electronic press kit type material on a disc.
"Becoming Sam" is the title of a nearly 45 minute documentary that deals with many aspects of the film's production. This documentary takes an in depth looking at the production of "I Am Sam" starting from the beginning stages of preproduction through the casting process, the style and look of the film and the musical selection process. Director Jesse Nelson talks about her initial ideas for a film and how she and writer Kristine Johnson were inspired by members of the LA Goal foundation which aides developmentally different people in Los Angeles. Through their extensive research Nelson and Johnson were able to capture the true emotions of this special group of people which were then rolled into the character of Sam. From here the documentary goes on to cover the casting process including an interesting story about how Nelson met Penn on vacation and how she immediately knew he was the man for the part. Other aspects that are touched upon deal with the film's look which includes an unusual stylistic choice of going with a number of hand held cameras during the film's more emotional and important sequences. The documentary also dedicates about 10 minutes to discussions about the importance of music to the film. "Becoming Sam" is comprised of a number of interviews with almost everyone involved with the production from the director, writer, down to every principal character in the film. Sean Penn even sits down for an interview which is a rarity for the reclusive actor. The rest of the piece is made of footage from the film though no major plot points are revealed other then those already announced in the trailer. Documentary producer Laura Davis has done an excellent job editing together this piece which combines the interview and film footage into a cohesive and informative look at "I am Sam". It's certainly not perfect but it is a number of cuts above the usual EPK.
Sitting down to talk about her film is director Jesse Nelson who gives a blow by blow account of the feature film "I Am Sam" in this screen specific audio commentary. This was another case where I was a bit hesitant to listen to an audio commentary track as I had already invested a considerable amount of time into viewing the film and wasn't really keen on spending an additional two plus hours on the film. I decided to listen to a bit of the track and see how it went and before long 134 minutes had past and the commentary was done. Regardless of what I may think about the film itself it's clear that this was a labor of love for Nelson who offers story after story about the production of "I Am Sam". She talks about the visual choices and approach she took to the film and about the core theme or message that she was trying to get across to the viewers. Nelson provides a solid argument for each of her points and while I may not agree with many of them at least she had a reason for making the choices she did. The commentary does cover a nice cross section of technical and thematic choices and does go into a bit more detail in some areas that were talked about on the included documentary. There are a couple aspects about the track that I didn't care for. This includes the fact that Nelson is very soft spoken and at times is hard to hear. If she had cranked the energy level up just a bit it would have made for much nicer listening experience. She also pauses a fair bit throughout the early sections of the track but this clears up as she becomes more involved with the discussion of her film. Lastly there is quite a bit of the usual back padding as Nelson praises Penn's performance at every turn. It's not a perfect commentary but it's worth listening to at least once.
Last but not least we have a collection of 7 deleted scenes that range from 40 seconds to 4 minutes that can be played with or without audio commentary from director Jesse Nelson. There were some nice moments during these scenes and the performances from Sean Penn, Dakota Fanning and Michelle Pfeiffer were first rate but ultimately the film was already running a bit long and some material had to go.
Rounding out the disc is the film's theatrical trailer presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen and Dolby Digital 5.1 sound as well as some text based production notes and cast and crew biographies.
Extras Rating : 8/10
Final Thoughts: "I Am Sam" isn't a film for everyone. Those who like to form their own emotional connection to the film will find the heavy handed spoon fed emotions a little bit too much to take. It does however feature strong performances from Sean Penn and newcomer Dakota Fanning as well as a strong supporting cast including Dianne Wiest. New Line's Platinum Series DVD on the other hand features excellent audio and video as well as a couple of very interesting bonus features. If you enjoyed the film then this DVD edition will make a nice addition to your collection. If you've yet to see the film then it's probably best that you try it out as a rental before committing to a purchase.
Disc Rating : 7.5/10