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 and the two have sex (apparently so she, who's homeless, could have a place to stay). 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. After an incident where Sam mishandles another child while preparing for Lucy's seventh birthday party, causing the child's father to retaliate, Lucy gets taken into foster care pending a court hearing to figure out if Sam is capable of raising her. Sam seeks out a pro-bono lawyer, who is initially resistant 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 eventually goes through: it's ruled that 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:
- A Birthday, Not a Break: Lucy gets taken away from Sam and placed into a foster home on her 7th birthday. It's even lampshaded by Sam, who protests to a police officer, "No you can't, it's her birthday!"
- 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.
- Amazingly Embarrassing Parents: Played for Drama as Sam acts much younger than Lucy's biological age.
- An Aesop: All you need is love. Partly deconstructed.
- Ambiguous Disorder: While Sam's disability is never outright specified, his highly methodical thoughts and actions, narrow-minded obsession with The Beatles, occasional struggles with verbalizing his thoughts, apparent sarcasm-blindness, poor responses to stress, and displays of stimming when emotionally overwhelmed imply that he is meant to be severely autistic. However, his characterization plays up so many stereotypes of the disorder that it veers heavily into Hollywood Autism territory.
- 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.
- Turner bombards Sam with a series of these during court.Turner: Mr. Dawson, you have the capacity of a 7-year-old. What makes you think you have the ability to be a father? Your background, your IQ... your friends who can't even testify— [...] What makes you think you can raise a 7-year-old? A 10-year-old? A 13-year-old? You know what that means? She'll be six years more advanced than you. What makes you think you can do that? What makes you think you can do that? What makes you think you can do that? [...] The question is, if you love your daughter... as much as you say you do— and I know that you do— don't you think she deserves more? Don't you in your heart of hearts... secretly question yourself every day?
- Bait-and-Switch Comment: The godmother in court when asked by Rita if she was worried about Lucy's future, says yes, 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.
- Because I Said So: When Lucy refuses to read the word "different", Sam replies to her that he's asking her to because he's her father.Lucy: I won't read the word!Sam: I'm your father... and I'm telling you to read the word. I can tell you to because I'm your father.
- Book-Ends: Of a sort; the film opens on a montage of Sam setting up tables and supplies at the Starbucks he works at. Later, near the end of the film, a similar montage occurs— except at Pizza Hut, Sam's new workplace.
- 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.
- Child by Rape: The circumstances of Lucy's conception are not elaborated upon. As he's severely mentally disabled however he could not give legal consent, so Lucy would be one.
- 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; Sam was too guilt-ridden to bear to even see her at first, but with the help of his lawyer Rita, he gets the courage to come the day after.
- Defrosting Ice Queen: Rita, with Sam's help, works through her Parental Neglect issues and start to emotionally reconnect with her son.
- Despair Event Horizon: Sam crosses it when Lucy starts to live with her new foster family. Rita brings him back.
- 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.
- Disappeared Dad: Sam's father was "gone" when he was born.
- Dramatically Missing the Point: At Big Boy's, Sam throws a fit when the restaurant doesn't have his favorite pancakes from iHOP. Even after the waitress repeatedly tells him that they don't have them. Lucy is visibly embarrassed by this.
- Dumb Is Good: Sam is portrayed as this.
- Emotionally Tongue-Tied: In the heat of emotion during the trial, Sam finds himself unable to properly pronounce "irreplaceable" until he's corrected.
- 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.
- Hollywood Law: In reality, it's unlikely Sam would lose custody entirely since he is neither abusing or neglecting Lucy, though he might be required to have supervision from a social worker. Also, these proceedings are generally much more informal. The state attorney verbally attacking Sam on the stand is also inappropriate and a judge likely would not permit it, particularly given his mental disability (it's akin to him dressing down a child).
- Hypocritical Humor: When Sam and Rita are ordering food at a cafeteria.Sam: Yellow and green in one bowl. Could you separate the lima beans from the corn, please?Rita: Sam, don't be impossible. Can I have the spinach omelet - only egg whites, no fat, no oil, no butter, and extra mushrooms?
- Innocently Insensitive: What results in Lucy being taken away by CPS. While preparing for Lucy's seventh birthday party, Sam tries to get an indignant and ableist classmate to stay in "the surprise position" by physically grabbing and moving him into it. The kid's father, wary that Sam is touching his child, tries to make him stop, resulting in Sam having to be physically pushed away and causing CPS to deem Sam as potentially harmful to other children.
- Inspirationally Disadvantaged: The film is about a mentally challenged single dad fighting the state for custody of his daughter.
- 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 the court.
- Lying to Protect Your Feelings: Lucy does this while being questioned before the court. She's even asked if she's doing it "because [she'll] hurt [her] daddy's feelings".
- Manchild: Sam.
- Missing Mom: Lucy's mother is a homeless woman who showed 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.
- Never Learned to Read: Sam can't read anything beyond simple picture books.
- Obfuscating Stupidity: Lucy begins to act like this out of fear of outsmarting her father.Teacher: Mr. Dawson, it's becoming clear... that she's holding herself back in the classroom. It's as if she's literally afraid to learn.
- Oh, Crap!:
- Lucy wears an epic and extremely painful one of these when Sam is trying to read her Stellaluna, but his reading skills are almost nonexistent, so she starts reading the story to him. Right at this moment, she suddenly realizes that she's smarter than her father.
- Lucy also has one before running off when Connor tells Sam that she told everybody she was adopted.
- "Open!" Says Me: When Sam doesn't answer Rita's knocking, she kicks in the door to his apartment.
- Overly Long Hug: Sam and Lucy ultimately have to be pried off of each other when saying goodbye.
- Parental Substitute: The adults at the institution Sam grew up in were basically his surrogate parents, according to him.
- Product Placement: Lots, including Starbucks, Pizza Hut, IHOP, 7-Eleven, Porsche and Hertz.
- Ragtag Bunch of Misfits: Sam and his developmentally disabled friends.
- The Rain Man: 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.
- Rule of Three: Turner repeats "What makes you think you can do that?" three times to Sam while in court.
- 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.
- Simpleton Voice: Sam.
- Terrible Interviewees Montage: Rita, testing Sam's developmentally delayed 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 Annie's POV.
- When You Coming Home, Dad?: Rita and her husband are overworked and are used to spending 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 that he wouldn't be able to raise her properly.
- Your Cheating Heart: Rita breaks down and comments to Sam about her husband screwing people who are "far more perfect" than her.
- You're Not My Father: Embarrassed by her father's behavior, Lucy tells her friends at school that she's adopted. It comes back to bite her when Connor rats her out to Sam in front of everyone at her 7th birthday party.