Film: I Am Sam

Rita: "I just don't know what to call you: retarded, mentally retarded, mentally handicapped, mentally disabled, intellectually handicapped, intellectually disabled, developmentally disabled..."
Sam: "You can call me Sam."

I Am Sam (stylized i am sam) is a 2001 American drama film written and directed by Jessie Nelson, and starring Sean Penn as a father with a developmental disability, Dakota Fanning as his inquisitive seven-year-old daughter and Michelle Pfeiffer as his lawyer.

Sam, a mentally handicapped man, meets a woman who takes advantage of him sexually. Nine months later, she drops a baby girl off and vanishes into the night. Though he's not able to understand all the implications of this, Sam does his best to raise the girl, whom he names Lucy, with the help of some friends.

Lucy turns out to be very bright, but after a while she realizes the gulf between her own intelligence and her father's, and she even starts to act dumb - pretending that she can't read, and so on. When he calls her on this, she confesses that she never wants to be smarter than he is. She's six years old at the time.

Shortly thereafter, the school realizes that Lucy is being raised by a mentally handicapped person, and they report it. Lucy gets taken into foster care pending a court trial to figure out if Sam is capable of raising her. Sam seeks out a pro-bono lawyer, who is initially resistive to the idea of representing him, but eventually gets up to bat with everything she has.

Sam ends up moving in just down the street from the foster home. He's not aware that this is a bad thing. Lucy runs away to Sam's house repeatedly, and he keeps bringing her back to the foster home, because he knows she has to obey the law. Eventually even the foster mother comes around, realizing how much Lucy loves her father, and one night she even brings her over to Sam's house.

The court case goes through, and eventually the verdict is: Sam can raise Lucy, assuming he gets help from the various resources he's proven he's capable of seeking out, to ensure that his daughter is not without proper education.


This film provides examples of:

  • Age Cut: We cut from Lucy age 3 to Lucy age 6 during shots on the swing in the park.
  • all lowercase letters: The title on posters and promo material is in lower case.
  • An Aesop: All you need is love. Partly deconstructed.
  • Armor-Piercing Question: In one of the court scenes, when Annie is on the stand, the other lawyer brings up her father, and she stares at him for a long time and then breaks down and cries. We can only assume the reason.
  • Bait-and-Switch Comment: The godmother in court when ask by Rita if she was worried about Lucy's future, she says she does, but not for the reasons we would expect:
    Rita: So, what you're saying is ... you don't worry about Lucy's future.
    Annie: No. I do. I worry all the time. I worry if they take Lucy away from her father they will take away an enormous piece of her ... and I worry that she will spend the rest of her life trying to fill that hole.
  • Cannot Tell a Lie: Sam, and it becomes a problem for Rita when preparing him for his day in court.
  • Carrying a Cake: Sam drops a cake he got for Lucy right in front of her.
  • Children Raise You: A major theme of the film is how Lucy at the age of 7 is starting to outsmart her father which may or may not be obstructive to her mental development.
  • Crusading Lawyer: Rita. She is not in for the money, in fact she decides to work pro-bono after some heartwarming moments with Sam.
  • Daddy Didn't Show: Lucy is heartbroken when Sam doesn't show up for visiting day at her foster family.
  • Defrosting Icequeen: Rita, with Sam's help, works through her Parental Neglect issues and start to emotionally reconnect with her son.
  • Did They or Didn't They?: After Rita has her breakdown in Sam's apartment and both hug, we cut to the next day where both meet and act slightly embarrassed. We don't learn if it was just because of Rita's meltdown or more.
  • Dumb Is Good: Sam is portrayed as this.
  • Fake Static: Rita pretends for her connection to break up when talking to her husband on the phone.
  • Flipping the Bird: Rita towards another driver in traffic.
  • Inspirationally Disadvantaged: The film is about a mentally challenged single dad fighting the state for custody of his daughter. Unfortunately, Roger Ebert was just one of the critics who thought the movie represented a bad case of Strawman Has a Point when it came to portraying Sam as in the right.
  • I Want My Beloved to Be Happy: Sam for his daughter.
  • Jukebox Musical: Sort of, as the soundtrack consists of cover versions of songs by The Beatles.
  • Lying Finger Cross: Lucy, when making her oath before court.
  • Man Child: Sam.
  • Missing Mom: Lucy's mother is a druggie who shows no interest in raising her which forces Sam into the role of a single father. He later admits that Lucy would be better off also having a mother figure in her life.
  • Moment of Silence: Put into play when Sam is forced to let Lucy go and the only sound is sad music in the background.
  • Need a Hand, or a Handjob?: Sam mistakes a streetwalker's mockery for a promise to help him raise his daughter. He is then arrested for soliciting her services.
  • "Open!" Says Me: When Sam doesn't answer Rita's knocking, she kicks in the door to his apartment.
  • Oscar Bait: As pointed out in Tropic Thunder, Sean Penn tried just a little too hard with this one, not to mention the creative staff behind the movie.
  • Product Placement: Lots, including Starbucks, Pizza Hut, IHOP, 7-Eleven, Porsche and Hertz.
  • Ragtag Bunch of Misfits: Sam and his mentally challenged friends.
  • The Rainman: Averted. Sam doesn't possess any supernormal abilities to compensate for his mental impairment.
  • Realistic Diction Is Unrealistic: Averted entirely when it comes to Sam, who tends to repeat himself and mix his words. Interestingly, the more a character comes to like Sam, the more they talk like him.
  • Room Full of Crazy: In a scene towards the end, Rita finds Sam holed up in his apartment where he has built a wall full of origami figures.
  • Shout-Out:
    • When asked what his daughter means to him, Sam makes a heartfelt speech that the judge points out is from Kramer Vs Kramer.
    • There is a screenshot of an episode of Johnny Bravo at one point.
  • Simpleton Voice: Sam.
  • Terrible Interviewees Montage: Rita, testing Sam's retarded friends for court suitability. She decides to drop that idea quickly.
  • Thousand Origami Cranes: Sam builds a wall of origami figures in his apartment, supposedly hoping for the legend to come true and the crane granting him his wish.
  • Three-Month-Old Newborn: Lucy as a newborn is exactly that.
  • Time-Shifted Actor: The younger version of Lucy is played by Dakota Fanning's younger sister Elle.
  • Tragic Dream: Sam wants to be a good father, but he just isn't capable of raising his daughter all by himself.
  • Unnaturally Blue Lighting: A blue filter is used in certain scenes, portraying bad times for Sam, like in court or in the hospital.
  • Vertigo Effect: In one of the courtroom scenes, after the lawyer poses his Armor-Piercing Question to Annie, we see him go through this camera effect from the Annie's POV.
  • When You Coming Home, Dad?: Rita and her husband are overworked and use to spend hardly any time with their son.
  • White and Grey Morality: Sam is a mentally handicapped man who is just trying to be with his daughter while the government thinks (and for good reason) that he wouldn't be unable to raise her properly.