I Am Sam

I Am Sam (2001)
New Line Home Entertainment
Cast: Sean Penn, Michelle Pfeiffer
Extras: Commentary Track, Documentary, Deleted Scenes, Production Notes, Theatrical Press Kit, Trailer

I must admit that "I Am Sam" flew well under my radar during its initial theatrical release. The only buzz concerning the movie that I recall hearing was that it was nothing but a blatant attempt to snag a best actor Academy Award for Sean Penn. Right or wrong, I sat down with that somewhat negative connotation stuck in my head to watch New Line’s new DVD release.

Sean Penn stars as Sam Dawson, a mentally-challenged and slighty autistic man who wiles away his hours working at Starbucks, interacting with the residents of his former group home, and listening to Beatles tunes. A chance encounter with a homeless woman leads to an unlikely one night stand and the start of the film finds Sam stranded outside the hospital with his newborn daughter after the mother pulls a vanishing act.

With the help of a kind neighbor (Dianne Wiest) and his friends, Sam sets about learning the ins and outs of parenting. Fast forward 8 years and we find Sam and daughter Lucy (Dakota Fanning) getting unwanted and unwelcome attention from the authorities over Sam’s fitness to be a single parent.

When Lucy is forcibly removed from the home, Sam turns to attorney Rita Harrison (Michelle Pfeiffer) to help him get his daughter back. As is so often the case in this type of film, Harrison at first rejects the case as too difficult and when she at last relents to Sam’s unyielding pleas she is forced to come to terms with her own familial difficulties.

What follows is a tale in which every party is clearly trying to do what is best for the child including the courts, Lucy’s new foster mother (Laura Dern), and Sam himself. While it would be an easy cop-out to simply label Sam as the good guy and everyone else as bad, the filmmakers avoid that cliche and instead present an even-handed story in which there are no easy answers.

Performances are all very good with some of the supporting roles played by actors with real-life mental disabilities. What sets this film apart is Sean Penn’s very believable portrayal of Sam as not only a sympathetic character but a multi-dimensional one who isn’t defined strictly by his developmental deficiencies. While there is warmth and humor here, Sam isn’t played merely for the easy laughs and tears.

While I was pleased with the serious direction the film took, I can’t say that "I Am Sam" was a very thought-provoking or challenging movie. It’s a good story and is well acted but there’s never any real question as to how it will end as this type of film has been done to death and "I Am Sam" breaks no new ground.

Presented in 1.85:1 <$16x9,anamorphic> <$PS,widescreen>, "I Am Sam" is yet another stellar transfer from the folks at New Line. The image is nice and sharp with no glaring edge enhancement or film grain. Colors are deep and natural and black levels are spot-on. It should be mentioned that the color blue is used as an artistic device throughout the film and much of the movie is seen with a blue tint or blue backgrounds. As is to be expected for such a new film, there are no nicks or blemishes of any sort on the print. The film looks great from beginning to end.

Audio comes in English <$DD,Dolby Digital> 5.1, DD 2.0, and <$DTS,DTS> <$5.1,5.1 mix>es. For some odd reason New Line seems to be abandoning support for non-English speakers as the only subtitle option is for English as well. "I Am Sam" isn’t a real whiz-bang picture designed to make full use of your sound system and much of the dialogue-oriented action in firmly anchored to the center speaker. But John Powell’s almost whimsical musical score as well as the half dozen or so covers of Beatles songs performed by artists such as Eddie Vedder and Aimee Mann really make full use of the <$5.1,5.1 mix>es. The score swells up to engulf the listener and the great dynamic range allows for a very lifelike audio experience.

I found the DTS track to be both louder and a bit more finely detailed than the DD <$5.1,5.1 mix> but, as always, such judgments depend as much on one’s audio equipment as they do on the work of the sound engineers.

Billed as another in New Line’s Platinum Edition series, "I Am Sam" boasts a handful of decent extras but nowhere near the number that most previous Platinum titles have featured.

First up is a running commentary with director and co-writer Jessie Nelson. This is an informative track that reveals a lot about the filmmaking process as well as the real-life people who served as the inspiration for the movie. It’s just too bad that Sean Penn didn’t contribute as his input would have been most welcome.

Next up is the 44-minute documentary "Becoming Sam." Here at last we get some participation from the actors and other filmmakers. These interview segments serve as a great accompaniment to the <$commentary,commentary track> as many of the topics touched on by the director are further fleshed out in this documentary.

The DVD also features seven deleted scenes with optional commentary by Jessie Nelson. None of these stand out as particularly interesting and it’s no great tragedy that they were cut from the finished film.

Rounding out the extras is a theatrical press kit — composed of very cursory cast and crew lists as well as a few pages of production notes — and the film’s theatrical trailer.

While the bonus features here can’t compare to the in-depth treatment given most Platinum Edition titles, the commentary and documentary are both very enlightening and fans of the film should enjoy the chance to learn more about "I Am Sam."

"I Am Sam" is a solid film that tugs at the heartstrings but is never as overtly saccharine as many critics would have you believe. Sure, the movie is an emotional rollercoaster but I can’t imagine a film about the fight for the custody of a child being anything but tearjerking at times. And Sean Penn’s remarkable portrayal of Sam certainly deserved its Oscar nomination.

But the film does have its weaknesses as well. While I found the story to be moving and enjoyable it was also not terribly believable. Perhaps it’s best to view "I Am Sam" more as a modern fairy tale or fable than as an example of how the real world actually works where issues surrounding the mentally-challenged are concerned.

New Line’s Platinum Edition DVD offers the film with excellent audio and video quality as well as some decent bonus features. "I Am Sam" is well worth watching and those who are already fans of the film should be more than happy with the DVD.