Disability movies tug the Oscar judges' hearts but often do little to advance audience awareness, but Jessie Nelson's 2001 drama, I Am Sam, sets out to be different. Whether it succeeds or not is open to debate; the film has had wildly varying critical reviews.
Sean Penn plays Sam Dawson, a cleaner with the mental age of seven. When his lover deserts him - fleeing their newborn child - Dawson treats it as just another challenge. He raises the child - whom he names Lucy, in honour of the Beatles - alone. But when she's seven, Lucy begins to exhibit behavioural problems and the authorities intervene, fearing that Dawson is incapable of raising a child. A series of misunderstandings appear to vindicate that view, and Lucy is taken into care.
With his friends' help, high-powered lawyer Rita Harrison (Michelle Pfeiffer) takes Dawson's case, and despite her hard-bitten veneer, the pair build a rapport, and prepare for a historic day in court...
Those expecting a sugar-dipped story of love against the odds will feel short-changed because I Am Sam offers a scant nod to formula. There's a palpable rage here as the story attempts to inculcate the notion that Dawson is equipped for (and entitled to) adult responsibilities as Penn - who gained an Oscar nomination - opts for a marriage of tics and dyspraxia. Pfeiffer uses the role as catharsis for her father's recent death, and emerges better. But the real star is Richard Schiff, who plays an amoral lawyer camouflaging cruelty with intellect.
Critics have not been kind to the film. Some felt it gave "an offensive, inaccurate and unhelpful portrait of mental illness", others thought the movie was "manipulative" with Penn giving a "distressingly bad performance", and it was summed up as "a heartless abuse of emotion, masquerading as searing critique".
Audiences have had a different take - blog comments on the net range from "a touching movie with flaws" to "quality film-making", "a truly wonderful film" and "the best motion picture of all time".
Plainly a controversial movie, it certainly stirs up emotions. Recommended.