Sam Dawson (Sean Penn) is a devoted single father to the beautiful, precocious Lucy (Dakota Fanning). He works hard, pays the bills and spends lots of quality time with his little girl. He also has the mental development of a 7-year-old.
So what happens when his daughter reaches her 7th birthday?
That's the question raised by teachers and social workers in "I Am Sam," an earnest drama that chronicles Sam's efforts to keep custody of Lucy when she begins to surpass him intellectually. Despite its good intentions, however, this film never rises above its true nature as a tear-jerking movie-of-the-week with an expensive cast.
Like all great actors, Penn immerses himself in his role, successfully burying his own persona under the requisite verbal and physical tics. Tics are all he has to work with, though, since the script by Kristine Johnson and director Jessie Nelson ("Corrina, Corrina") paints Sam as one of those angelic "special people" who never exhibits a personality flaw or anything else that might make him seem like an actual person. It's a well-meaning stereotype, but a stereotype nonetheless, one that condescends to its audience as well as to the people it portrays in such a one-dimensional light.
The other characters aren't much better, leading to the waste of several talented performers. Michelle Pfeiffer, as Sam's attorney, gets stuck with one of those obsessive career-woman roles, the kind where she's introduced walking rapidly down a hallway with an assistant following behind, going over her hectic schedule while phones ring in the background. Of course, she's a self-absorbed, neglectful mother in a miserable marriage, who finally breaks down in tears when she realizes that her life is a sham knowledge that comes thanks to (what else?) Sam's noble influence.
Dianne Wiest plays Sam's agoraphobic neighbor, who baby-sits Lucy, although she doesn't seem to do all that much. Laura Dern is weepy and protective as Lucy's foster mother, whose erratic behavior is tailored to suit the deus ex machina ending rather than any sense of realism.
Worst of all are Richard Schiff and Loretta Devine as the social service representatives who actually make some good points about Sam's inability to care for his daughter on his own, but who are portrayed as almost irredeemably evil. In fact, of all the huge leaps of logic this movie asks viewers to accept, this is the real whopper: Sam can barely count change or make a cup of coffee, but he has somehow raised a healthy and well-adjusted child without a mishap for seven years, with very little help from anyone. The social workers are reduced to arguing that Sam is an unfit father because he can't help Lucy with her math homework, something that would surely cause millions of parents to lose custody if it were actually implemented as a reason for taking kids away.
"I Am Sam" tries to raise important issues about what makes a good parent and when it's really necessary to remove a child from a home, but the whole thing is buried under so many layers of feel-good nonsense, any hope of an intelligent exploration is lost early on. There are some nice moments, especially in Penn's quiet scenes with Fanning, a subtle and expressive young actress who balances Penn's occasional outbursts of overacting. But just when you think things are about to get interesting, the soundtrack starts blaring another atrocious Beatles cover, and everyone repeats the film's "love is all you need" mantra, as if that pop-song platitude somehow provided all the answers to life's difficult, complicated questions.
It would be great if that were true, but it isn't, and it's an emotional cheat to insist otherwise. It doesn't take the mind of a 7-year-old to figure that out.