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Sappy material redeemed by acting

Review: Moving 'I Am Sam' saved by Penn

By Paul Clinton
CNN Reviewer

(CNN) -- "I Am Sam" is heartbreaking, uplifting, brilliantly acted, and profoundly moving. The fact that the story is utterly implausible has to be set aside. Fortunately for the movie, Sean Penn -- once again proving he's one of America's finest actors -- stars in the title role, and his performance makes the film.

Sam Dawson is a man with the mentality of a child. After a homeless woman whom Sam has befriended abandons him right after the birth of their daughter, he's forced to raise the child alone.

In an awesome performance -- in only her third feature film -- young Dakota Fanning almost steals the show as Sam's daughter, Lucy Diamond Dawson. This 7-year-old actress is astonishing as she completely absorbs her role. If some of her scenes with Penn don't break your heart, you might want to check your pulse.

Father and daughter manage to survive -- and thrive -- as Sam supports them with his menial job in a coffee shop. He also gets lots of help from his loyal friends: Ifty (Doug Hutchison), Robert (Stanley DeSantis), Brad (Brad Allan Silverman), and Joe (Joe Rosenberg), who are also mentally challenged. Another member of his vital support system is his neighbor Annie, played pitch-perfectly by Dianne Wiest. Annie is the only one in the group not developmentally disabled, but she's agoraphobic and never leaves her apartment, so her help is limited.

Great performances

Sean Penn stars with Michelle Pfeiffer in 'I Am Sam'

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Everyone in this motley crew continues on their merry way until a social worker at Lucy's school investigates her home life. After discovering that Lucy's mental capacity will soon surpass her father's, the powers that be decide to remove her from Sam's custody. At his friends' urging, Sam goes in search of a lawyer, and somehow lands in the office of high-powered attorney Rita Harrison (Michelle Pfeiffer).

At first she tries to brush him off, but then she's shamed -- in front of her co-workers -- into taking Sam's case pro bono, and together this strange duo fight to keep father and daughter together.

This is Penn's best work in years. He would rather direct than act, but it's a lucky thing he signed on for "I Am Sam," because without his performance -- which anchors the entire film -- this story could have been sappy beyond description. All parents feel lost and confused at times, and Penn's rendition of a mentally challenged man trying to cope with the everyday realities of raising a child is a work of art.

Better people

Overall, the premise is hard to swallow, but again the performances save the day.

Like Penn, Pfeiffer and young Fanning are exceptional. Pfeiffer gets her meatiest role in a long time, and she's up to the challenge. Her character is just as handicapped as Sam, though her limitations are more socially acceptable: an obsessive-complusive nature, and a manic need for perfection, are destroying her sense of self-worth and ruining her relationship with her own son. On the outside, this successful lawyer has everything, but inside her life is out of control.

Ultimately, Sam helps Rita more than her legal skills could ever help him, as he changes her outlook on life. Sam's determination to be a father at all costs, and against all odds inspires Rita to be a better parent and a better person.

Co-written (with Kristine Johnson), produced and directed by Jessie Nelson, "I Am Sam" is a highly manipulative film, but it does capture the extraordinary love between this father and daughter. Ultimately, the sugar-coated ending tied with a big bow will test your limits of believability. But it's a motion picture that will stir your soul.

"I Am Sam" opens nationwide on Friday, January 11.


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