I'll state this before I start in with my review of "I Am Sam": the tearjerker is - and probably always will be - my least favorite genre. Although I often give these films a chance, they continue to underline emotions and themes, using music and other elements to pull at the heartstrings instead of letting the actors create compelling and sympathetic characters on their own. While "I Am Sam" is a well-meaning piece of work, director Jesse Nelson falls into many of the same traps that lead these films down the wrong path. The film stars Sean Penn as Sam Dawson, a mentially handicapped adult who earns a living by working as a janitor at the local Starbucks, where his suggestions are appreciated by customers.
Fortunately and unfortunately for Sam, he suddenly finds himself a father after having a one-night stand with a homeless woman who was simply looking for a place to live. Sam clearly loves his daughter, but he finds himself ill-equipped to to care of her - once she reaches the age of eight, she also has a greater intellectual capacity than her father.
When the Department of Children & Family Services gets word of the situation, a ruling is handed down that states that Sam is not capable of caring for his child. Destroyed, Sam finds himself on the doorstep of highly regarded attorney Rita Harrison (Michelle Pfeiffer) and begs for her to defend his ability to care for her daughter. While she originally doesn't want anything to do with the case, Sam provides a compelling enough case that she takes on the struggle.
Clearly, "I Am Sam" devotes itself to wringing emotions out of every sequence, which makes otherwise fine performances seem less powerful. The film strains so hard to tug at the heartstrings that it begins to have the opposite effect, distancing itself from an audience that likely begins to realize that it's clearly being pushed and pulled. An example of this is the film's reliance on music - either the quirky score or a soundtrack full of Beatles tunes is playing far too often - how about letting the actors have a moment without the soundtrack intruding, telling us how to feel? Director Nelson and cinematographer also make an odd choice to shoot many scenes with a handheld camera. While I felt this worked in the more intense drama "Changing Lanes" recently, "I Am Sam" is a more simple piece where this choice feels awkward and unnecessary. The duo have also gone a bit overboard in terms of style, shooting the courtroom scenes with an overly and obviously cold look.
As for the performances, I generally enjoyed all of them, if I certainly didn't think anyone of the cast members has their finest hour within. Sean Penn gives a convincing and strong performance; although it's rather obviously a bid for awards notice, he gives a strong and fairly sincere performance. Pfeiffer really doesn't have much to do within the confines of a pretty stereotypical character, but she hits all the notes fairly well. Young Dakota Fanning as Lucy really gives the finest of all of the performances, showing genuine emotion and remaining cute without being seriously annoying. Even Dianne Wiest sneaks in as Sam's next-door neighbor, who offers one of the film's few touching scenes as she speaks in the courtroom on Sam's behalf.
"I Am Sam" proceeds as if the filmmakers clearly believe that the situations presented are deeply emotional and genuine - yet, the film does not succeed nearly as well as it probably could or should have due to the fact that the filmmakers desperately try to wring emotions out of the audience and offer predictable situations. A better, less forced screenplay and a different approach to the material would really have made for a more effective and less "Lifetime Channel" movie.
VIDEO: "I Am Sam" is presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen by New Line. New Line, from the begining, has shown a commitment to presenting films in their original aspect ratio and with strong image quality than has never been inconsistent. Concerns about stylistic choices by the filmmakers aside, "I Am Sam" is another in a long line of terrific presentations from the studio. Sharpness and detail are exceptional throughout the movie, which appears crisp, smooth and wonderfully well-defined from begining to end.
As for flaws, there really wasn't anything of much concern at all. The picture did show slight grain during a few moments and a tiny touch of edge enhancement, but otherwise remained free of faults. No pixelation was seen and no pirint flaws in the way of specks or marks were noticed. Colors remained rich and vivid throughout, appearing bright and well-saturated, although crisp and cold during the more depressing courtroom moments. Black level remained solid, while flesh tones usually appeared accurate. Another excellent presentation from New Line, although I wasn't expecting any less.
SOUND: "I Am Sam" is presented in Dolby Digital and DTS 5.1 by New Line. Clearly, there isn't much of a need with a film like this for very dynamic audio or agressive surround use. The soundtrack full of Beatles tunes really gains the most attention in the soundtrack, filling the room and sounding crisp and clear. There's a few instances of nice ambience, but mostly, the film stays dialogue and music-driven, with little else. Both soundtracks remained very enjoyable, although the music seemed slightly warmer and more pleasant in DTS.
MENUS: A cute, subtly animated main menu is included. Additionally, transitions to sub-menus are nicely done and sub-menus are also creatively designed.
Commentary: This is a commentary from director Jessie Nelson. She provides a perfectly enjoyable discussion of the movie, providing insight as to why she chose to film certain scenes a certain way or how the characters chose to play a moment. While I didn't always agree with her choices, she at least provides a compelling and interesting arguement for how she approached many elements of the movie. A very enjoyable commentary that provided solid analysis and some entertaining stories.
Becoming Sam: Aside from the fact that they create beautiful transfers of the movies that they release on DVD, New Line has also shown a great understanding of what audiences want to see and hear in supplemental features. "Becoming Sam" is more of the same, as the documentary does not simply restate the story or promote certain elements. Instead, the filmmakers and actors sit down to discuss their history with the project, from the inital inspirations that lead to the screenplay to the pre-production (casting), to details about filmmaking and more. Admittedly, there is some "I always wanted to work with" and "so-and-so is wonderful", but for the most part, this is a solid piece that clearly covers all aspects of the film well. The documentary is 42-minutes long; different pieces of the documentary can be played specifically or the documentary can be played as a whole.
Also: 7 deleted/alternate sequences; theatrical press kit (bios/text info) and the trailer.
Final Thoughts: "I Am Sam" certainly boasts a talented cast, but I felt they didn't really get a chance to shine. New Line's DVD edition is up to the standards of their usual "Platinum Series" releases, with excellent audio/video quality and fine supplements. The DVD is certainly recommended as a purchase for those who enjoyed the movie - those who haven't seen it and are interested should try it as a rental first.