“Daddy, why are men bald?” “Sometimes they’re bald because their head is shiny & they don’t have hair on it. So their head is just more of their face.”
Jessie Nelson’s I Am Sam is probably the greatest motion picture to never win an Academy Award. In fact, it was only nominated for one Oscar at the 74th Academy Awards in 2002: Sean Penn for Best Actor as Sam Dawson. In one of the worst decisions ever made by the Academy, he lost to Denzel Washington as Detective Alonzo Harris in Training Day. Training Day is an okay film, but each of the other four nominees (Penn, Russell Crowe as John Nash in A Beautiful Mind, Will Smith as/in Ali, and Tom Wilkinson as Matt Fowler in In the Bedroom) are far more deserving of the Award. And Sean Penn’s performance is an all-timer: He depicts Sam as poignant & funny, loving while taken advantage of, intellectually disabled & wise, supplicating & helpful; and a great, great father! If I could be as good at anything as Sam is a Dad – let alone something as difficult as parenting – my life would be enriched. Though Penn won two Best Actor Oscars, at the 76th & 81st Academy Awards for Mystic River and Milk respectively, this is far & away his greatest performance.
This was Jessie Nelson’s second and, sadly, seemingly final directorial project. She continued to write & produce movies through 2007 and is the co-executive producer of Hope Springs slated for release on August 10. It seems a waste that she’s now in charge of overseeing the financial aspects of & securing funding for films when she made, had it not been for Crash, the best movie of the previous decade. She brought out the best not only of Penn, but a plethora of other actors in the film: 3-time Oscar nominee Michelle Pfeiffer plays Sam’s pro bono attorney, Rita Harrison; Dakota Fanning in her finest role as 7 year old Lucy was just 6 during filming; 2-time Oscar winner Dianne Wiest is the brilliant musician and agoraphobic Beatles aficionado, Annie; Oscar nominee Laura Dern is heart-wrenching in her brief role as Lucy’s foster mother, Randy; Loretta Devine, who three years later would portray Shaniqua in Crash, is the irritating, “by the book” Children’s Social Services worker, Margaret Calgrove; and Richard Schiff, the heartless State’s Attorney hell-bent on removing Lucy from Sam’s custody.
Sam, whose IQ is only 70, is raising Lucy alone after her mother abandons her to him when she is just leaving the hospital. Lucy is “in some ways” fast becoming Sam’s intellectual superior and, as a result, the film’s title is derived from their favorite book to read together, Green Eggs and Ham. Sam struggles to learn and care for her, but he has a great support system of his intellectually disabled friends, Annie, and later Rita. He is a devote Beatles fanatic, due in large part to the encouragement of his mentor, Annie. His teachings to Lucy are often metaphors of Beatles lyrics, and Lucy Diamond Dawson was, of course, named after the song. When he meets his attorney, [Lovely] Rita [George] Harrison, he believes without voicing as much, that her name can only mean it was fate. Beatles’ songs (due to legal complications & to the chagrin of Penn) covered wonderfully by a variety of established artists and Hans Zimmer’s fine score permeate this immense film. But it’s the chemistry between Sean Penn and Michelle Pfeiffer & Dianne Wiest & Laura Dern & especially Dakota Fanning that makes I Am Sam so uplifting & joyous that it’s draining. After watching it, you’ll need to go to the movies just so that you can relax!
I Am Sam’s major themes are the unconditional love between a father & daughter, prejudice towards the intellectually disabled, learning patience & compassion, tolerance of other’s misfortunes/idiosyncracies, and, as if Jessie Nelson was demonstrating her ability to read a decade into the future, that hope springs eternal. So use tonight and tomorrow to prepare for the emotional roller coaster that the piece will hurl you through, and stop by your favorite DVD rental spot the following day: “I Am Sam for Thursday’s Video Night. That’s an excellent choice!”