Jessie Nelson's "I Am Sam" deals with important and emotional issues such as mental disability, single parenthood, and foster care. Unfortunately, precious little of the movie grants them any potential critique. Instead, Nelson plumbs the enormous sentiment quota with the relentless persistence of an oil well drill until it erupts in a syrupy geyser.
Not that this mattered to the Oscar voters who granted Sean Penn's performance a Best Actor nomination. For regular audiences, though, the less cynical may be happy to be ensconced in its overwhelming feel good factor. But even still, it's hard to ignore the film's clumsiness and blatant manipulation.
Penn plays Sam, a Beatles-obsessed Starbucks cleaner with the mental age of seven. Managing to get a homeless woman pregnant, her disappearance leaves him to bring up young Lucy. Their relationship is an endless stream of beautiful moments, until she hits seven, exceeding Dad's mental capabilities and attracting the meddling attentions of Social Services. To win her back, Sam wangles the free services of Pfeiffer's bitchy lawyer.
To be fair on Penn, he is the strongest element. His performance of Sam is a product of his enormous character skills and while the sentiment is heavy, it's positively controlled compared to what surrounds him. Pfeiffer plies mediocre callousness, but succumbs all to easily to Sam's simple-minded 'Love is all you need' notions.
However, Dakota Fanning's turn as Sam's precocious daughter winningly recalls Kirsten Dunst's and Anna Paquin's early success and the soundtrack of Beatles covers are the more enjoyable elements of this blatant emotional wrangling.