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"I Am Sam" Challenges Notions of Competence and Family
Review by Dave Reynolds, Inclusion Daily Express
January 23, 2002

I recently watched a sneak preview of “I am Sam".

I liked it. A lot.

This movie gives as accurate a portrayal as you will ever find of a parent with a disability caught in the legal and social service systems. It is also a movie that explores deeply and with humor what it means to be a “good” parent -- and an authentic human being.

"I am Sam" is the story of Sam Dawson (Sean Penn) a single guy who is suddenly faced with raising his newborn daughter on his own after the mother leaves the two of them at the hospital door. With a little help from his friends and a watchful neighbor (Dianne Wiest), Sam and his daughter Lucy Diamond (Dakota Fanning) manage to stay under the radar of social services for several years.

A series of unfortunate events shoves the two of them under the microscope of the local child protection agency. A social worker decides that Sam, who is considered to have "the mental age of a seven-year-old", can no longer properly care for Lucy, and takes custody of the girl on her eighth birthday.

Sam decides to fight the system to get Lucy back. Realizing that he cannot do it alone, Sam and his friends find high-priced, tightly wound attorney Rita Harrison (Michelle Pfeiffer) who decides to take the case free of charge just to prove to her colleagues, and perhaps herself, that she can.

At first, Rita treats Sam like he is an annoying child. But as they prepare for the custody hearing, and as Rita sees her own family slipping away from her, she begins to realize that she has much in common with Sam. That's when she starts to understand that being a competent parent has nothing to do with intellect or money. She also learns that Sam has unyielding integrity, along with a kind of intelligence we don't yet know how to measure with IQ tests.

The story line is true to life: Sam's situation is faced by thousands of parents with disabilities in this country alone. As a veteran of disability services I can tell you the characters seem authentic enough. Even the ending, which was not what I was expecting, is believable.

What impact will this movie likely have on the viewers' attitudes toward people who have developmental disabilities, particularly parents in Sam's situation?

Audience members will likely leave the theater with much of the same attitudes as they brought into the theater. Those who look for similarities will see similarities; those who look for differences will see differences. I am too seasoned, and perhaps too cynical, to believe that a movie -- no matter how well done or provocative -- will start a social services revolution.

The good news is that "I am Sam" will likely not have a negative impact on public perception.

Much credit for this must go to the lead actor. Penn gets it right. His Sam is not a “sweet innocent” like Cliff Robertson’s “Charly”, a fantasy hero like Tom Hanks’ “Forrest Gump” or an over-the-top stereotype like in Dustin Hoffman's "Rain Man". Penn’s mannerisms and speech patterns leave no doubt that Sam is "severely disabled". This is important because if Sam's character were watered-down or sugarcoated, audiences might be left with the idea that he was "not all that disabled". By making Sam real, Penn somehow makes his disability irrelevant.

Within the first five minutes I felt I knew Sam Dawson. While it's true that I have known dozens of men and women who share his labels of "mental retardation" and "autistic tendencies", I felt I knew Sam because, in a very real sense, I am Sam, too.

Like Sam, I know what it's like to stumble out of bed five times a night to rock and feed a crying infant. I know the pain of doubting if I have done the absolute best for my child. And even though some of my favorite people are social workers, I also know what it's like to deal with human service systems that make career employees of people who are "just doing their jobs".

And, like Sam, I am a Beatles fan and a movie buff. I have not yet mastered his ability to use Beatles analogies to make a point, however.

Also true to life were the court scenes in which Rita made the legal attempts to discredit Sam and his friends look simply ridiculous. The truth be told, the claims made by Rita's opponent (Richard Schiff), which are so often made in legal and social services, were simply ridiculous. For example, the opposing lawyer suggested that Sam could not possibly know how to be a good father because he grew up in an institution and had no parental role model.

The only real drawbacks I found were cosmetic. I was distracted by the director's overuse of the jittery steady-cam, made famous by late-night police dramas and margarine commercials. And "I am Sam" does have the look of a feature-length commercial itself, with obvious endorsements by everything from Starbucks to IHOP to Tab soda. There is also a scene where a shaky Rita tries stuffing an entire package of marshmallows into her mouth that made me cringe.

A brief word has to be said about Sam's friends -- his informal support network -- Robert, Ifty, Brad and Joe. His video night pals reminded me of Oscar and Felix's poker night buddies in "The Odd Couple". It was also good to see real actors with developmental disabilities (Brad Allan Silverman and Joseph Rosenberg) in positive supporting roles.

But what makes this film shine, I think, is that while it features characters and actors that have disabilities, it really is not a story about disabilities. It is a story about people facing the real challenges we all face with the limitations we all have.

Finally, it is a movie about dignity.

When Rita prepares Sam for the custody hearing she tells him that they need reliable witnesses to testify that "you are a good father despite your handicap . . . disability . . . I mean that you're retarded."

"I don't know what to call you!" Rita says. "What should I call you?"

"Sam! You should call me Sam!"


Dave Reynolds writes and edits Inclusion Daily Express, a disability rights email news service with an international focus, from Spokane,Washington, USA. For more information on this advertisement-free service access the Website at:

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