In 2001 actor Sean Penn was nominated for the Best Actor Academy Award for his portrayal of Sam in the emotionally charged film I Am Sam. The movie runs 134 minutes and is directed by Jessie Nelson who also co-wrote and co-produced the film.
Sam is a mentally challenged adult with the intelligence of a seven year old. He is functioning in life, holding down a menial low wage job at Starbucks and living on his own. He was raised for the most part in institutions. The movie starts out with the birth of his daughter. When the mother leaves the hospital with Sam carrying the child, the mother wanders off, as she doesn’t want to have to deal with raising a child with Sam. So, Sam struggles to raise the child himself. For seven years he successfully does so with occasional help from a reclusive neighbor (Dianne Wiest) and his equally mentally challenged friends. The little girl thrives, as she is very bright and healthy. However, as she gets older she becomes less at ease with having a “different” father. Eventually Child Protective Services (CPS) enters the picture and takes the child away from Sam.
Although they are clearly the villains in this story, what is not so clear is whether they really have much of an option. But CPS is not really the focus in this movie. The focus is not the child. Although you are worried about the child, you are saddened by what is happening, you may even be outraged, the focus is always on Sam. This is his story, not the child’s story. When the child is taken away, then Sam seeks a lawyer and finds a very high priced one that wants, at first, nothing to do with him. The lawyer (Michelle Pfeiffer) is very hyper, driven, and also has a child, but she doesn’t give her child the love, attention, and TIME that Sam gives to his daughter.
The film juxtaposes the two lives, the life of a bright, aggressive, financially successful woman lawyer whose personal life is in a mess with mentally challenged, loving, Sam who devotes his life to his daughter and is very successfully in his personal relationships---everyone at work and elsewheres likes Sam, the lawyer’s coworkers and family do not have meaningful relationships with her.
For me, it was a powerful, tear producing film about love. (If you look too closely you will start to see lots of flaws in the film. The director isn’t that skilled and the basic plot is close to fantasy. The casting of the little girl is at best acceptable. In Kramer vs. Kramer you see Dustin Hoffman, a very bright and capable and highly paid man trying to cope with raising a child and see just how daunting a task it can be. You see Sam doing the same but never see how in the world he is able to succeed. They eat out all the time but how in the world can they afford to do this on his meager salary? They live in a nice apartment…on his limited income? Although this is hard to believe, Sean Penn is so great in his part as the mentally challenged father you are willing to overlook the flaws.)
One of the best bit parts in the movie is the foster mother played by Laura Dern. She is very subtle but clear in her commitment to the child and making sure that Sam doesn’t get her back. She plans on adopting. But, when she eventually realizes that Sam is the reason the child is so wonderful (because Sam has been so giving and loving to the child) she is able to let go of her drive to gain control and focus on the needs of the child. The end of the movie jumps from this realization to everyone at a soccer match where Sam improbably is functioning as the referee. You see the foster parents there along with the lawyer and her son. Everyone is happy, all is right with the world.
You assume at the ending that what the child needs is her father and what the father needs is his daughter. All fine and well. But you also see that both the father and the daughter need an extended family, they need others to help make life manageable. That is where the lawyer and the foster parents fit in. You have to jump to assumptions that Sam is caring for his daughter but that the foster parents have joint custody and that they are providing some of the structure and help that is beyond Sam’s ability. (The lawyer mentioned this idea earlier so you are aware of it as a possible ending and have to assume that is what happened when you see everyone at the soccer match together.)
Yes, this is a story about love. Yes, this is a story about how a child needs love and time and attention more than they need a fancy home and parents that are so successful they don’t have time for the child. But, the film has more important lessons than these. This is a film about the importance of valuing diversity.
It is when the people around Sam learn to appreciate who he is, not what he is not, that they are able to accept him and see how wonderful a parent he is for his daughter.
Sam is different. Sean Penn helps us see just how different he is. But the marvelous part of how he portrays Sam is that we learn to accept him as he is, we have empathy for him, we want him to have his child back even though a part of us realizes he has very very limited abilities. Instead of focusing on all the things he cannot do, we see through to what he can do. He can love better than the vast majority of us are able to love. As the lawyer finally realizes and states, she has gotten more from Sam than she has given to Sam.
This is the heart of the movie. Only when we see how Sam is a gift to us all are we able to accept him as he is, not as a limited person but as a person that can be our teacher. The mentally and physically challenged have been offering us this gift for thousands of years and all too often we have turned the gift away to our great detriment.
Our world is filled with wondrously diverse people of every type imaginable. When we learn to see the positives in diversity, then, and only then, do we grow and become enriched by that diversity.