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You’re going to cry. Scratch that. You have to cry. You also have to feel sorry for everyone in the film, save for the evil characters who try to take a child away from her father. Your heartstrings will be pulled and manipulated by the music for maximum effect and you’ll end up feeling all warm and fuzzy inside when everything is finally resolved.

If everyone spoke honestly, that would be the edict from writer/director Jessie Nelson, who also penned the equally emotional Stepmom, loved by females the world over but loathed by those who actually took a moment to think about things for a change and were sick of being told how to feel. The same goes with I Am Sam, a story that follows a logical path but seems to forget that not everyone will think the same way.

Bean bag fun

Movie
Sam (Sean Penn) is mentally disabled, though we’re never really told how or why. He ends up fathering a child (played by the brilliant Dakota Fanning) when a homeless woman stoops to a new low in finding a place to sleep. Unbelievable moment number one. Surely the woman didn’t have to go that far? Geez.

Now Sam has the mental capacity of a seven year-old, meaning it’s going to be pretty hard for him to look after a newborn child, let alone guide one through their younger years. Sam does his best to care for the girl, named Lucy Diamond after the famous Beatles song. The Beatles gimmick serves only to help Sam remember some numbers and provide a solid musical soundtrack, one of the few major highlights of the film.

We fast-track through a few years with Sam somehow managing to sneak Lucy through to her seventh year, aided by reclusive neighbour Annie Cassell (Dianne Wiest), who has her own (largely distracting) story to tell. Now this is where Nelson and friends forgot to stop and think for a while about the story. Sam has guided Lucy to age seven and she seems perfectly normal. In fact, she’s one of those kids whom you listen to and realise she speaks and acts well beyond her years. That in itself is a little hard to take. Unbelievable moment number two. But when Lucy reaches the mental capacity of her Dad the nasty child protection workers decide it’s time to hand her over to more capable parents. Sam’s got a fight on his hands, and you know where this one is headed.

Did anyone ponder the fact that no matter how much love Sam has in his heart a mentally disabled father may not be the right person to bring up a child moving quickly into her teenage years? Jessie Nelson merely glosses over these important points in a farcical court case, condemning anyone who dares to think that Sam is an incapable father and failing to suggest there may be a way to compromise. But there are no compromises here. It’s all or nothing for Sam, who will either regain custody of his daughter or give her up to foster parents with visiting rights limited to a couple of hours every week.

Sam’s case is reluctantly handled by high-profile lawyer Rita Harrison (Michelle Pfeiffer), a specialist in child custody cases. Rita initially turned Sam down knowing full well he would never be able to come up with the money but after her work colleagues rib her about not wanting to handle a touchy case for free she ends up taking it on pro-bono. As if there weren’t other lawyers around the firm who could handle it. And Rita’s got her own problems too, as evidenced by her chucking a major wobbly in her very first scene, spilled jelly beans and all. Nelson lets poor old Michelle down here as she’s written into her lowest corner in only the first few minutes.

It's video night!!!

Still, there are some great moments in the film, mostly those that have little to do with Sam’s battle for his child. Sam’s work at Starbucks, his disabled friends who gather together every week for video night and his conversations with Rita provide not only some much needed comic value but a bit of light relief from a poorly thought-out main plotline.

The performances on the whole are outstanding, particularly Penn who richly deserved his Oscar nod. Playing a disabled person or a difficult role can often lead to praise just because of the different style of character but Penn and his method acting deserve every bit of praise they get. And with Nelson’s writing sometimes straying a little off course it’s an even bigger achievement. Michelle Pfeiffer is done a total injustice with her character, though the writing for Rita does begin to come good towards the end. Pfeiffer still looks stunning and shows she can still command a scene like the best of them. We’ll be looking out for her future roles with anticipation ‘cause this girl’s still got it.

The two major players are ably supported by young Dakota Fanning, sure to land a string of roles after this film, Boston Public’s Loretta Devine as the hard-nosed child protection agent and Richard Schiff, the lawyer made out to be a bit of a villain. The rest of the cast is a relative mixed bag. Sam’s friends are played by two disabled actors Brad Silverman and Joseph Rosenberg as well as Stanley DeSantis playing the paranoid Robert and The Green Mile’s Doug Hutchison in a very different role as Ifty, a movie-fan with Attention Deficit Disorder. Throw in the great Mary Steenburgen, a meaningless role for Laura Dern and Dianne Wiest and you can’t really fault the cast, though they are all laden with personal troubles to suit the theme of the film.

I Am Sam is probably a great film for those who don’t really think at all about the story. The audience will always feel compassion for a daughter taken away from her father but when Nelson fails to recognise that it may not be the best idea keeping them together the story goes straight downhill. Penn’s performance is probably worth the price of admission alone and the rest of the cast do their darnedest to come out on top with a clunky script, so all is not lost with this one. But it will be interesting to see whether Nelson continues with her unrelenting musical scores and stories so hell bent on making the audience feel what she wants them to they can’t help but fall in line for a while. We wait with tepid anticipation.

Video
Again Roadshow have come up trumps with their latest transfer. Presented in 16:9 enhanced, 1.85:1 the visuals are fantastic. Colours are as vibrant as possible, aided by the great colour pallete chosen for the various “themes” throughout the movie. The blues and grey of Rita’s home and office are razor sharp, while the colourful surroundings chosen for the scenes between Sam and Lucy retain all their warmth and depth. Nelson might not have constructed the greatest film but her visual style, aided by cinematographer Elliot Davis, looks great on DVD. No scratches or aliasing to be seen and the print is largely free of grain save for a couple of minor instances here and there. On the whole this is another fine transfer that mirrors that of the Region 1 release, only with the added benefit of PAL resolution.

Some lawyers have all the fun

Audio
Three soundtracks are on this release, with the Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS 5.1 mixes of the most interest. When listening to both tracks there was no discernible difference between the two, and I even ran a test with one of my mates with a trained ear after listening to countless DTS and Dolby Digital soundtracks over the years. Needless to say even he struggled to hear the difference between the two as I randomly switched soundtracks. There is also a Dolby 2.0 track for those not so well-equipped.

Surround use is quite good even though this is a very dialogue driven movie. The rears are mostly filled with ambient noise and sound effects, but the music is what will really knock your socks off.

With Sam being a Beatles fan it was logical to have their songs in the background of the film. But this wouldn’t be an easy task for two reasons. Firstly, buying the song rights for even thirty seconds of a Beatles track for your film isn’t exactly cheap. And secondly, Nelson seems to take great delight in pumping out some sort of music throughout the whole film, meaning there’s a hell of a lot of footage to cover. The compromise (yep, she compromised with this one) brings amazing results. Big name artists were brought in to record covers of Beatles songs for the soundtrack, still a costly exercise but nowhere near as expensive as using the original recordings. Artists such as Ben Harper, Aimee Mann, Sarah McLachlan, Eddie Vedder, Sheryl Crow and Rufus Wainwright provide their own versions of popular Beatles songs, with Vedder’s “You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away” the standout. Makes me think I’ll check out the soundtrack next time I’m looking around.

Extras
A small but detailed extras section awaits us as we look into the “All Access Pass” section of the DVD. First up is the Director’s commentary with Jessie Nelson, who has a great deal to say about the production. Save for the explanation of some of the contrived emotional moments this commentary track is highly entertaining, particularly when Nelson talks about the choice of Beatles songs and the casting decisions they faced with the film. Not a bad effort.

Next up is the documentary entitled [/i]Becoming Sam[/i]. Running for over forty minutes this long making-of piece details more about the production, from casting decisions to writing the story. There are interviews with the main characters as well as Jessie Nelson, all of whom have some good information to impart about the film. There’s a fair amount of back-slapping when it comes to talking about Penn’s performance but it is highly deserved and can probably be forgiven for going a little over the top.

Rita goes pro-bono

Also included are 7 deleted scenes, featuring a couple of alternate scenes and some outtakes tacked on to the end. The commentary from Nelson is a welcome addition as she explains why these were cut. This is not forgetting the fact that some scenes had to be sacrificed in order to shorten what was becoming (and arguably still is) an overly long running time.

Rounding out the disc is a notes section which comprehensively details more on the production, with the odd overlap with the material on the commentary track and documentary. There is also the theatrical trailer and biographies for the cast and crew. In all it’s a pretty small package but the information inside will please all but the most ardent of fans.

Overall
Did you cry? Maybe not, but that’s probably because audiences no longer want to be told what to feel and when. Nelson’s writing and style sets out the emotions from the start and doesn’t falter until the last beat of the musical score at the end of the credits. Still, there’s some good work mixed in with the often clumsy writing, while the actors, Penn in particular, do a great job of keeping us engaged in a story that fails to acknowledge a few major details. Watch it if only for Sean Penn, rising star Dakota Fanning (what is it with these child names nowadays?) and the radiant Michelle Pfeiffer doing her best to work with the material. A near faultless video transfer, great sounding audio helped by the Beatles-inspired soundtrack and some decent extras don’t harm the disc at all, so fans of the film shouldn’t hesitate to pick this one up. For the rest of you; turn your brain down and your emotions up and you’ll sail through this one quite easily. Solid disc. Shame about the film.


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