"I am Sam" is the story of mentally challenged Sam Dawson who is suddenly faced with raising his newborn daughter on his own after the mother leaves the two of them right outside of the hospital. Sam names the baby girl Lucy Diamond, after the Beatles's ong "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds." With the help of Annie, a wise and also watchful neighbor, and Sam's circle of mentally challenged friends, his informal support network, Sam manages to raise Lucy. Everything goes well until Lucy reaches age 7 which is the level of Sam's mental capacity. A series of unfortunate events makes a social worker become aware of the situation. She decides that Sam is an unfit father and that he cannot take care of Lucy any longer. The legal argument is that he won't be an appropriate parent once Lucy is mentally older than him.
Sam and his friends realize they need help to ensure Sam's custody of Lucy and to fight the system. Rita Harrison takes the case free of charge but for completely selfish reasons. The moment she steps into the picture it becomes clear that the purpose of this movie is not only to show how a parent with a disability is caught in the legal and social service systems. There is more to it.
The movie raises some serious questions that should be of concern for everyone in our society. What defines a 'good' parent? Is it the amount of intellectual maturity displayed or the level of love given? Does being a competent parent have anything to do with money? And isn't raising a child a challenge for everyone? Director Jessie Nelson wants to make the audience think. She indicates that everyone is damaged in one way or another. Sam may be severely disabled but he is not the only one with a problem.
There is his neighbor Annie for example, who hasn't left her house in years. Or his self-absorbed lawyer Rita who is not even able to spend time with her son. Rita works way too hard to support her shallow, cold and materialistic lifestyle which doesn't even make her happy. As she gets to know Lucy and Sam she realizes how badly she has failed with her own son.
She has the money to buy him anything he wants but she still cannot give him what he really needs. He needs attention. The same attention Lucy gets from Sam. I truly believe that Lucy is the happier child until she becomes smarter than her father, until her friends start teasing her about him and until she is taken away by the state. They question if and how Sam could be a parent and a role model in the future. Would he be able to give her advice when she needs some? What about puberty? What about school? Lucy can already read better than Sam.
I have to admit at some point they are right. However, Sam is a big part of Lucy's life. In my opinion it is foolish to believe that her life would be better without Sam. He has a sunny and outgoing personality and his unconditional love for Lucy allow him to be an exceptionally good father. Furthermore, if Sam is such an incompetent father how did he raise her up until then? How did he change the diapers, take her to the doctor and pay the bills? And how did Lucy become this smart and charming little girl? The state thinks that it is despite Sam but I have no doubt it is because of Sam. I am no expert on this but I can imagine that Lucy will grow up to be a much more patient, more understanding, more modest and more mature adult than others.
Money does not equal love. Lucy's foster mother has to find that out. She believes she could be a better parent because she has so much more to offer in a materialistic sense - a nice big house for instance. But as she sees Lucy sneaking out of the house to be with Sam she feels how much it hurts her to be separated from her father.
She admits to herself that she cannot replace Sam and gives Lucy back to him. Although the movie is well developed and the characters have been written with much dimension and insight I find the ending a little disappointing - a little too 'hollywood' for my taste. Will "I am Sam" have an impact on the viewers' attitudes toward mentally disabled people? Probably not. I don't think people will change their opinion because of the movie. It is something that most people prefer not to think or talk about anyways. All in all "I am Sam" is not as much about solutions as it is about just presenting a problem.
I found the type of camera the director uses to be distracting at first. But once I got used to it, I noticed how it lets the movie become authentic and real. The cast can only be described as incredible. Sean Penn plays Sam with so much conviction. Sam never seems stupid. He is rather a man who constantly battles his intellectual limitations.
I was surprised by Sam's emotional intelligence. Penn's speech patterns and the way he acts make Sam an authentic human being and leave no doubt that Sam is severely disabled. Lucy seems bright but not precocious. Rita Harrison is the only person who significantly changes. That shows how much we all could learn from Sam and Lucy if we only listened. 'It takes a village to raise a child' - an old saying which is true for everyone.
Sam needs help to raise Lucy but not just because of his disability. He needs help how everybody needs help. In my opinion "I am Sam" is not just about disabilities but about real people facing real challenges we all face with the limitations we all have. Just something to think about.