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I Am Sam

I didn’t hate I Am Sam as much as I thought I would.

I thought I’d hate it because it was about a retarded guy, and movies about retarded guys are just generally not good. If they’re not making some big, bombastic point about how people mistreat everybody on the planet who is not exactly like us (they really should stop making movies with that particular theme because the obvious response is a resounding “DUH”), or now that I think about it, even if they are making that particular point, the film’s are generally either condescending or mocking. Or both. And when they’re not, they’re just pretty bad (see Molly).

But I am Sam surprised me. Actually, I confess I was going to turn it off when, within the first frame of the first shot, I realized, “Oh shit, he works at Starbucks,” and ashamed of my immediate and intimate knowledge of his employ, I was ready to give up on it. I didn’t, though, and I’m glad I didn’t, because I am Sam isn’t really an indictment of society’s mistreatment of the mentally handicapped (thank God). Rather, it’s a long-overdue criticism of the blowhards at DCFS who are more than willing to ruin a child’s life because of their self-righteous insistence that they know what is best for the child.

Basically, the premise is as follows: Sam (Sean Penn), a guy with the rough mental capacity of a 7-year-old and an unhealthy obsession with the Beatles, impregnates some homeless girl, and right after she has the baby, she abandons both Sam and the child, leaving this mentally-deficient guy to raise a child. He doesn’t know what to do, but he has help from friends and neighbors, and he manages to raise her as well as he can under the circumstances. All Sam really has to give is love, and the film argues that that’s all he really needs.

So his daughter grows up. She’s smart for her age, and she’s played by Dakota Fanning, the creepy-ass girl from the mini-series Taken. Shockingly, she was less creepy and actually fairly adorable in this movie. One night, Sam accidentally gets picked up on charges of soliciting a prostitute, and this begins the child-custody nightmare that forms the bulk of the movie, but I won’t really go into details on the rest of the plot so as not to ruin it.

The main thing I dug about the movie were the performances. Everybody in the cast gives a bizarrely excellent performance, even Lieutenant Commander Data* as the disgruntled shoe salesman. All of the supporting players—Michelle Pfeiffer, Dakota Fanning, Dianne Wiest, Laura Dern, Richard Schiff (from The West Wing), and even Dr. Kelso from Scrubs (playing the laziest judge in the history of the universe)—give wonderfully nuanced performances, which is surprising considering this is not really an ensemble movie. They should be just sitting around waiting to play off of Sean Penn, but everybody’s really fantastic. The elevate a script that is actually kind of weak (despite it’s well-done attack of child-welfare organizations).

The only real criticism I have is the overuse of color filters, dutch-angles, and the modern technique of arbitrary jump-cutting. I’m not sure if this is supposed to give the audience a feeling of how Sam sees the world. I think it is, but it comes across more as a director trying to be artsy-fartsy without any real purpose. And I hate it when directors do that. But it’s not too distracting, and it actually does work well stylistically in a few spots. But more often, it seems arbitrary.

Also, there are a lot of technical inaccuracies regarding the in’s and out’s of working at Starbucks. But that’s not really worth criticizing, is it? I mean, it’d just be sad if I scrutinized a movie that much, wouldn’t it?

Wouldn’t it?

Rating: *** (out of 4)

* More geek-ass Star Trek trivia: The hooker that Sam gets picked up with is played by Rosalind Chao, who played Keiko O’Brien on The Next Generation and later Deep Space Nine.

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