Stars: ** 1/2
Rating: PG-13 for language, mature themes
Run Time: 2 hours, 9 minutes
An astonishing performance by Sean Penn highlights this powerful but saccharine twist on the unconventional side of parenthood. Penn is Sam Dawson, a mentally disabled man who is left alone to raise his baby Lucy when the birth mother abandons them. Sam’s parenting skills are based on affection and routine – Wednesday nights at IHOP, video night on Thursday, Fridays at the local karaoke bar. His tightly-knit group of equally mentally challenged friends support Sam’s inconceivable challenge with childlike enthusiasm and humor.
When daughter Lucy (Dakota Fanning) is old enough to attend school, the fragile family foundation begins to crack. Unwilling to surpass the intellectual growth of her father (stagnant at a mental seven years old), Lucy holds back in school and refuses to progress. Her teachers are alarmed, and alert the Department of Child Services. Lucy is removed from the only home she’s ever known by the county authorities and placed with an eager foster mother (Laura Dern). Reluctant to give up the little person who is his heart, Sam seeks help in the form of legal counsel, randomly choosing an impressively-named law firm from the Yellow Pages. The lucky winner is Rita Harrison (Michelle Pfeiffer), a driven workaholic who agrees to take on the case pro bono to provoke her partners.
What could have been a great movie (due to the strong performances of Penn and Pfeiffer) is merely an average one because of director Jessie Nelson’s penchant for manipulation. From Fanning’s too-cute command of her role as the angelic crutch to a disappointingly pat conclusion, “Sam” gives good melodrama but pushes too many TV-disease-of-the-week hot buttons. Agonizing plot setbacks set a solid dramatic tone while a hilarious answering machine snafu adds well-timed comic relief, but it’s mired in frothy soap opera scum.
Penn embodies the emotion of a difficult parenting situation with grit and glory, and Pfeiffer’s inner child transformation resonates with truth. Both performance scream Oscar with obvious relish (which will kill their chances of being recognized by the Academy). Full-length homage to the Beatles is unbearably cheesy, and doesn’t add much in the way of narrative flow.