Mentally challenged Sam does battle with the big, bad authorities to hold on to his child. Desperate, he wangles the services of a callous lawyer and together they discover the power of parental love.
Movies about the disabled always risk falling into schmaltz, and a Hollywood film dealing with mental retardation is imperilled more than most. This is an industry ever-obsessed with the box office dollar, so having it tackle single parenthood, mental impairment and foster care in a movie obviously designed for Oscar-approved success just doesn't seem quite right.
Not that New Line or director Jessie Nelson (Corrina, Corrina) care; their main concern seems to be to make the audience feel ashamed, gleeful, and finally absolved through the healing powers of understanding and love. And in a way (in an as-long-as-you-don't-think-about-it-too-long kind of way), it works - making I Am Sam one of the finest examples of onscreen emotional manipulation since Rain Man.
In this regard, Sean Penn is an excellent casting choice. His guileless portrayal of single parent Sam is the most effective piece of emotional ammunition in this movie's battery. He has the staccato hand gestures, gleeful clapping and stultified speech down pat, and while he doesn't slather on the sentimentalism (thank God), he still lays it on pretty thick - and has gained the hoped-for Oscar nom. The soundtrack of Beatles covers, too, is just perfectly designed to trigger tear ducts worldwide.
Yet the film as a whole is a heartless abuse of emotion, masquerading as searing critique. Sam's relationship with his daughter is one big trip to the park, until her mental capacities start to surpass those of her father, and those meddling social worker types decide he cannot be fit to raise his child. How wrong, says the film, disallowing any room for confusion or debate. Foster parent Dern is treated with similar over-simplification, as is the mediocre Pfeiffer's high-maintenance, low-life lawyer-bitch who - if the film is to be believed - needs nothing more than the touch of autistic humanity (what would we do without it?) to make her learn how to love.
It cloys, oh how it cloys. Cycling through treacle would be child's play compared to the gumpy sugariness on show here.