RIORI Presents Installment #174: Jessie Nelson’s “I Am Sam” (2001)

The Players…

Sean Pean, Michelle Pfeiffer, Dakota Fanning, Dianne Weist and Laura Dern, with Brad Silverman, Joe Rosenberg, Stanley DeSantis and Doug Hutchinson.

The Basics…

Fatherhood is often deemed as second-rate parenting compared to the benighted world of Mommy-dom. On the other side, however single fatherhood is an altogether different matter. Such a role is regarded as strong, brave and beautiful to the general parenting public. Dad putting it all out there, all alone so his kid can have the same privileges that usually involves a dad and a mom.

Single fathers are a special class of people. But what if a single dad is himself “special?” As in, one with “special needs?”

And what happens when after years of loving care to a daughter get dashed over some incident? Parents make mistakes, but should there be special dispensation dealt out depending on a family crisis?

Or shall we say, “special” dispensation?

The Rant…

Before I ended up in the restaurant biz, I studied English Education in college. Got a degree that’s still kicking around somewhere. I had a desire to be a writer and English teacher. No, really. A part of me still does, especially during the lunch rush.

In my salad says, I was fascinated—if not obsessed—with language and the written word. It wasn’t an all-consuming interest, but always just below the radar. Regular as breathing. Not surprisingly this fascination with words, idioms, irony, satire, sarcasm and the lyrical prowess of prog rock heroes Rush* led to English being my best subject in high school. Not to brag but it came easy, and I was confident that no matter how many times I botched an algebra assignment—which was quite frequent, surprise—I could tilt the academic pinball and set things mediocre by acing a test on some Samuel T Coleridge poem, even if the lesson was on some Ralph W Emerson scribblings. I had taken enough extra credit sh*t, so please clam your collective selves.

Funny thing, ‘tho. I never really considering teaching English as a real career until later in my high school days, namely junior year. If you’re of the fortunate few the drudgery of mounds of homework, social status upkeep and ritual swirlies could be tempered by scant teachers that “got you.” Maybe some of you out there in the real world were lucky enough to meet a few of your own. Teachers that got you, encouraged you, challenged and sometimes applied the necessary academic thumbscrews to make you really think. You know the kind. I recall my American Lit teacher, who inadvertently drove me into college seeking English enlightenment.

He was Mr Russell—Will—a ruddy-faced, red-headed old skool PA Dutchie with an unwavering reverence for American Literature. That was my junior year, that was his class. He was frank and humorous and could smell bullsh*t a parsec away. No nonsense until some nonsense might grease the wheels and get lazy students marginally interested in the classics of Poe, Hawthorne, Twain and other luminaries of the American word. He also made his own practicum; he decided what reading material was worth poring over. This is important. Not syllabus. Practicum. Either due to tenure or that no BS stance, Russell thumbed his nose at what the school board deemed appropriate and focused on classics that were relevant then as is today (The Scarlet Letter was a fave, and will prob’ never lose its message). He told the class outright on day one what novels he would not cover, despite what curricula demanded. No Moby-Dick. He said it was long and boring. No Hemingway novels. Too pretentious and felt too long. Just his short stories. No Shakespeare either. It was an American Lit class. Don’t get all confuzed.

In no small terms he amazed me. I recognized another free-thinker as I was trying to be. I could fast see this guy he played favorites…but you had to earn that dubious honor. I figured out what you could get away with in his class was how he regarded you as a student, good, bad and/or crazy that may lead to special dispensation. Example: Russell’s classroom was in the bottom floor of one of the campus’ auxiliary buildings. By bottom floor I mean a polite basement. The man had four truncated windows to offer some natural light and oxygen into his room. He attempted to improve air circulation with hanging ferns. It was probably just window dressing (such as it was), but he would direct one of us a week to water them. It was his version of getting the class settled. But down your bags, get out your books and, oh yeah Timmy, water the plants. I got to be Timmy a few times, and this was no apple polishing. This became envelope pushing.

My seat was the first in the line of desks nearest the “windows.” Before class was in session I always perched myself on the large, refrigerator-sized A/C unit under the sills. No reason, except maybe stare out the window for a bit, waiting to get the heck home. Never bothered Russell, except the few times I tried to make the A/C my desk. Don’t ask me why. I think I was pushing “special treatment.” He didn’t like my perch, literally if not metaphorically (esp when I had my contra Discman plugged in).

Hold on to that “special treatment” comment, BTW.

The class ran like what I would find a college lecture to be: Russell held court at his desk, occasionally pacing in front and/or up and down the aisles. The daily lesson plans revolved around the selected book for the week. A book. One book. Five days. Forty-five minutes a day. We never ran out of things to pick apart. He’d ask a few choice questions about the text, ranging from characterization to social deconstruction. The class did more talking than he did; it was like a debate. Me and my fellow classmates would talk about the subject with each other rather than raise hands for Russell to chose (no big, he never went after the hands anyway, just random names). Oh sure, there were other things like going over the homework and him redirecting us back to reality, but for the most part Russell’s class allowed us to think and by that I mean critically. That’s a practicum that was, has and still is sorely lacking in high school. For that Russell was a great teacher because he didn’t do a lot of teaching. Not in any conventional way. I think I learned more about English than any other high school teacher I had could, not to mention more about critical theory, classic rhetoric and mediocre horticulture.


I enrolled in Syracuse University’s English and Textual Studies program with a concentration in Secondary Education. Will’s impression was still stuck in my brain like so much spent chewing gum on the undersides of many desks then; I wanted to teach English to high schoolers. My naiveté was rich and thick like so much butter on pancakes. Just cuz I was a high schooler who got keen to one of his mentors style and enthusiasms did not mean it ran both ways. Far from it, and think about it: I was praising but one of a zillion teachers that actually “got” me. Even a blind squirrel finds a nut once in a while. I was (and still am) such a nut.

It was expected in SU’s teacher education program that us fledging educators would have to do some work in the field. Several experienced teachers in the district (many I found to be crabby, suspect of the university’s practices and maybe merely hungry for some tax write-off) permitted student teachers to ride along and eventually instruct classes with their approval of our lesson plans…which never really happened unless they were tweaked into a bastardized version of their lessons. The “correct” ones. Parroting isn’t learning, kids. Let’s get that out of the way right now.

I was assigned to a seventh grade English class. My host teacher did not appreciate my admittedly doe-eyed approach to conducting the class, and even though me being a newb I didn’t like her style of teaching, if that’s what you could call it. Seemed like holding court at a military tribunal; she ruled over her charges with both the carrot and the stick. Rewards for the few that followed her rules, a metaphorical switch across the back for the unlucky few. A lot of verbal bullying and threats. I recalled me in 7th grade being a veritable hell. Between draconian, tenured teachers and an endless disembarking from the good ship Lunkhead, the crew queuing up to take a swipe at me it was the prime example of lowest of the low. I figured by the looks on the kids’ dazed and confused faces, things hadn’t really changed much.

The class was arranged with a relatively new practice back in the 90s. It was called an “inclusive classroom.” No big deal in the 21st Century, but back in the Stone Age it was a risky prospect. This was the time where PC ran riot, and everyone wanted to be included in the rat race we call life, regardless of any “impairment.” Be it physical, emotional, cognitive and/or Trekkie, everyone wanted in to whatever the “normal” was peddling.

Here’s how an inclusive classrooms works: students who need special attention are incorporated into the daily lesson with a few concessions made, like giving a student in question extra time to reach an answer, or have worksheets written according to their reading level. Literacy issues? That’s what the floating teacher’s aid was for. If not that, then a sharp student would pair up with the exceptional kid for the day, serving as de facto tutor. That’s how it followed.

Okay. Here’s how the inclusive classrooms I studied followed: the retard sits in the corner. Any questions?

It felt like that following the barest scintilla of what comprised an inclusive class in my bad ol’ days of student teaching was essentially tokenism. We got a special needs kid in the class already, okay? True to form in that middle school purgatory, any kid who was deemed “special” was sequestered to their own deal, alone and more times than not relegated to the back of the room. I felt it made the student for like an example than exemplary. Might as well be rusty manacles. But I wasn’t in charge, and the special kids got their “special treatment:” being a pariah. Dang it.

Back to my seventh grade English class. A pretty unremarkable affair. Two dozen kids between the ages of 12 to 13, diverse and all pounding through puberty the best of us ever could. They just wanted to get decent grades, rib one another and get the heck home ASAP to catch the latest ep of Dexter’s Laboratory or molest their PlayStations. Healthy interests all around.

I’ll spare you the details of my host teacher’s heavy-handed methods of keeping her charges time-on-task. In the spirit of this week’s film I wanted to tell you all about Sara.

Sara was the inclusive one. She was 15, had Down Syndrome and very limited literacy skills. Instead of being incorporated into the class proper, she sat at her table in the corner, playing endless games of Scrabble with the lucky kid of the day. I’ll cut to the chase: Sara always looked supremely bored, hand holding up her chin and almost asleep. I could relate. I had two months to follow in my host teacher’s steps (nuh-uh). Will Russell’s English class this was not, but I always kept my mentor’s spirit in the back of my brain.

I observed Sara’s dynamic for weeks. I wasn’t allowed to be unleashed on the kids until I created a lesson plan on my own and learn by observation what should be done to enrich these little trolls’ minds. Never mind the “regular” kids, what with their workmanlike attitudes. Small fry. I kept focusing my attention on Sara, natch. When the coast was clear, I eventually got to sit with her and play a match. I found her literacy skills were subpar, and ostensibly playing Scrabble was supposed to help her learn to form words. Well, yeah; that’s how the game’s played for everyone. I didn’t learn how to read playing a board game. Thank Dr Suess. Kinda figured that if Sara was gonna get anywhere she needed books. Instead she got this “special treatment.”

Let me tell you something about folks with special needs: they ain’t stupid. “Stupid” is an aphorism what “regular” people apply to those who are “special” (BTW, sorry about all the quotation marks). The awkwardness or just plain discomfort polite society has in regarding—let’s just call them simply specials from here on in—people who need five extra minutes is stupid. I’ve never met a special who is stupid. Like everyone, they want to fit in, be productive, hold down a job and date. I’ll go so far as that specials are smarter than non-specials. Never met one with a drug habit. Never met one late for work. Never met one who wasn’t eloquent. Never met one without opinions of their own. Never met a criminal. That stuff bereft of normals is more common than not. In simpler terms ever been at a 24 hour Walmart ’round 11 PM and hear kids yelping, mom screaming and it’s a school night? Chances are none of those specimens has autism. The kids that do went to bed at 8.13 that night, as they do every night. Because it’s 8.13. And school starts at 8.30. Those normal young shoppers are probably guzzling Red Bull mixed with anti-freeze and Mom is wondered what good her baby-daddy’s high school was worth.

It’s prejudice, plain and simple. We fear what we don’t understand, and cognitive disabilities can be a doozy to fathom. But for a special, it’s life. Gotta make do with what you got. Sara indirectly schooled me on that.

So I fooled around with Scrabble for a bit, mostly chatting up bored and frustrated Sara. I sweated her. Do you do this everyday? Yes. Ever get to sit with the other kids? No. Do you like playing this game? It’s boring. And so on.

Sara was very articulate. She made no bones about who she was and what she wanted out of school and wished to be a better reader but was stuck with this dumb game. To say she had excellent verbiage is like suggesting that the Atlantic was a tad damp. She was also a little OCD, neat freak. She wanted everything at her table just so. She even requested that the lamp at her table had a specific brightness (I give ups to my host teacher on this one. Instead of using the glaring overheads, she has casual table lamps dotting the classroom for illumination. Mr Russell would’ve approved) and her backpack had to be slung over her back of her chair, unlike on the floor with the others. She was just bad at reading. She made all this known to me in one day. Guess she just needed someone to talk to.

Fast forward. When it was my time to take over the class for a week, I had a pretty clever lesson plan in mind. I though so anyway. It was the time in the English class to tackle writing stories. I had the idea to have the kids work in “pods” (groups of four or five) on a single story and each kid had a specific job. One would write the story, one would illustrate, one would edit, etc. I plucked up Sara and sat her down in her pod with her friend Jessica (who was a very brainy girl). She had the story idea. The artsy kid sharpened his crayons. The kid who’d make sense of it all was armed with the Wite-Out. And I made Sara the Editor-In-Chief.

“What’s that mean?” she asked me.

“You make sure that everyone is doing their job correctly. You tell them what to do.” I told her.

She beamed.

Sara took her position seriously. She was very good at expressing expectations, delegating authority and keeping a cool head when the other Hemingways were bickering (“No yelling, please“). Sara had natural organizational skills, and a kind but no pushover demeanor that served her well throughout the assignment. And if things got hairy in the literacy department, Jessica was always willing to lend her a hand.

My host teacher f*cking loathed all of this. What? That a surprise? She took me aside on the penultimate day of our “publishing house” project and tore me a new one. She said, and I quote: “I will not tolerate you undoing what I’ve created for this class!” What, like making it more inclusive? No wonder that the matter of Sara interacting—heaven forbid—directly with her classmates would make my host teacher uneasy. Power struggle? In her mind maybe. But from personal experience I could only play Scrabble by myself for so long.

That being said, the next week Sara was back to shuffling tiles, gloomy, well aware of her standing in the classroom. I was pissed, and also discovered that Sara’s quandary was not an isolated incident. In fact, the teacher—for lack of a better phrase—picked on the few other students with disabilities but still high functioning. It was as if the teacher had an axe to grind with the concept of an inclusive classroom (“Great, more mouths to feed”), the school board for pushing it or just “slow kids” in general. In retrospect, I’m leaning towards the latter. Again: surprise!

She was another statistic of “they’re a bunch of retards. They’re all stupid.” Recall what I said earlier: slow does not equal stupid, not exclusively. Never knew a slow guy who texted and drove. Stupid is what you are if you pat their heads and talk to them like they got their big boy pants on. Also, quit thinking them as “cute,” a lie to hide your own insecurities and bias. They can sniff bullsh*t faster than your average 7th grader, Scrabble champ or no.

BTW, Sara’s pod earned an honest A-. Not my grade; the host teacher made the marks. Teamwork makes the dream work.

Maybe it came from Will Russell’s free-thinking English class. Maybe it was my lesson that was Sara. And maybe I’ve worked with too many “slow” people who are sharp enough to milk that tag the “normals” give them so they can slack off (it’s true, that card gets played often in the “help the handicap” scenario, but who’s really handicapped gets kinda blurry), but I’m assured of this: “normal” folks like you and me are stupid. Specials just need five more minutes. The others take a lifetime.

At least, that’s how it kinda looks like with Sam Dawson’s legal case.

The Story…

Sam Dawson (Penn) has a pretty average albeit decent life. He works as a server at the local Starbucks. He’s a major Beatlemanic. He hangs with his bros for movie nights and diner dates. He does the best single daddy duty he can loving and raising his daughter Lucy (Fanning) just right. It’s all good, with a certain exception: him. Sam is exceptional, possessing a cognitive disorder that leaves him with the mind of a seven-year old. No matter, though. His friends and caring neighbor Annie (Weist) provide advice and support where needed. From diaper changing all the way to reading homework, Sam and Lucy have a fine support network. So all is well.

Until it’s not. The best laid plans and all.

At Lucy’s surprise 7th birthday party, things get a little out of hand. Some kid allegedly gets hurt, and his dad is not pleased. In a whirlwind rush, youth and family services are summoned to get Lucy to a secure place. Read: away from Sam. Sam has to go to court to defend his case and get Lucy back…but…

Sam’s not a lawyer, but even with his “diminished capacity” he understands he needs legal help. He doesn’t make enough to earn a high-class lawyer, nor really understands how to get one in the first place. What’s a single dad to do to get his kid back? Of course! Sam lets his fingers do the walking through the Yellow Pages and comes across a firm promising justice, swift and bountiful. He makes an appointment immediately. Many immediate appointments. Okay, he just keeps showing up pestering overstretched yet still high-class lawyer Rita Harrison (Pfeiffer) until she takes on his case.

Rita doesn’t see much fortune taking on Sam as a client, besides the guy’s broke. Still, taking on his case pro bono might do wonders for her frazzled image. She’s a strung-out parent too, and although not in Sam’s camp, can somewhat relate. Then again taking on a case like Sam’s could blow up in both their faces. A man with diminished capacity, single and has a daughter that is more intelligent than him? Might make good press, but is it worth the pressure on all of them?

Well, Sam is quick to remind us all quoting his buddy John Lennon: “All you need is love.”

God willing.

The Breakdown…

Recall I stated no one who was ever regarded as “special needs” never earned the label stupid. However, much to our detriment many “average” folks can easily (if not willingly) fall into the dum-dum camp. Worse still that some them folks might got access to a movie studio.

I’ve already made my voice heard on how polite society regards specials. A lot of head-patting and talking slow. Aforementioned I am against this knee-jerk, superciliousness, guilty white liberal film-flam. It’s unfortunate that director Nelson was lost on this notion, whether out of ignorance or engrained in the crapola I just repeated. I’m leaning towards the…uh…both.

Cutting right to the meat of the matter, what could’ve been a sterling legal drama about who’s “truly fit” to be a parent turns out to be an unconventional film  about family with a serious case of the cutes. Actually, utter bathos would be more accurate. Anything of substance in Sam is razor-thin, and the film plays out like a Lifetime movie with a larger budget. It’s really a shame, because we could have a meatier plot here; all the ducks were in a row. Instead we get Hallmark cards, pandering and a fresh box of Kleenex. Almost tragic really.

Why? Because we got a stellar cast! Young Fanning holds her own really well here. Very sharp and hints of good things to come in her career. She’s still ranks as the youngest actor ever to be nominated for a SAG award (for her performance here, bruh). Fanning’s young Lucy is everygirl with a mind and thankfully not precocious. Well-aware of both hers and her special Dad’s circumstances, she rolls with the punches and also serves and Sam’s confidant and, well, playmate. A friend, and one of precious few in Sam’s life that gets what’s going on around her. Not even grown-up, shut-in Weist (always good with rigid and/or volatile characters, like here) gets what’s truly up with Lucy and Sam’s father/daughter relationship. Fanning sells it without “selling” it, and thankfully avoids any trappings of being a moppet. Least well-meaning director Nelson accomplished that much. Might be the most cutting edge in the whole movie.

Save Penn’s performance. Even that I don’t give three sh*ts about the Oscars and their back-slapping, sometimes they get a few nods aimed in the proper direction. He got an Oscar nod here, and it’s easy to see why. Penn really sells it. While taking in Sam I didn’t see Penn. I saw Sam. Here’s a guy who’s convincingly played a convicted felon being prepped for The Chair, a whimsical Django Reinhardt fanboy, SF’s gay-activist city supervisor Harvey Milk and the benchmark by all movie surfer dudes are measured (right, Keanu?). Here we have his Sam Dawson, perhaps the only reason for this film to be. I never saw Penn in Sam, nor did I in any of those other movies (save Fast Times, okay? Everyone was young and unknown once). Penn really sells it here all right, but it’s the cinematic equivalent of buying the album just for the single.

A great actor can be only as good for their foils. I dug Sam’s entourage quite a bit and seriously Penn’s Sam is spot on, both as a dad and someone special. I have seen and met both, and been so also sometimes. An example of Penn’s keen acumen for the character, regardless of Sam’s nature he displayed the universal shock and awe about being a new father. Trust me: been there, done that. That can’t be mocked or made up. Yet Penn fooled me as Sam. Simply wow. I wasted my time watching this for this moment and it’s okay. Granted there was some conflict within me watching Sam regarding laughing with and laughing at, but Pfeiffer’s frazzled yet subtly steely performance did a good job helping us understand Sam beyond being a jilted father and a man with a child’s mind. I needed Rita to understand Sam, and vice versa. Needless to say good chemistry is crucial with an ensemble cast.

Come to think of it, the entire cast is solid; no one is one-note, a caricature or a cipher (despite Schiff always portraying a lawyer. Very well as seen here). Sam is an ensemble drama and a good one, if only in the technical sense. the pacing is good, the story is straightforward—a kind of a “ripped from the headlines” story—albeit done before and better. Everything here is sturdy, professional and workmanlike. All factors vital to make a drama work and work well.

So what the hell did I not enjoy it?

We had two very big distractions I could not ignore, and not the dolt on his phone checking his subscriber count. The first is thus: whenever we see a film it is imperative to maintain a “suspension of disbelief.” Be mindful that (barring a documentary and its like) what we are watching is not real. Gotta go with the flow, even if the films deal with high fantasy, hard sci-fi, superhero adventures or anything Monty Python ever cut. Hang up the prefrontal lobes at the door, especially if this is a 90s Adam Sandler piece. Grab your popcorn and enjoy the show.

A cousin of suspension is “interior logic.” I’ve gone on about this one. It means where the film must follow the rules the story dictates. If some hiccup goes against the story we feel confused and sometimes cheated. Think about when George Lucas could not stop polishing the original Star Wars trilogy. Right. Although Sam doesn’t deviate from the story, I kinda wished it did to incite some kind of a twist. But that’s a minor carp. The big fish is the accusation screaming in my ear: THIS COULD NEVER HAPPEN. It couldn’t. It just couldn’t. Forget the incident at the birthday party, Child Services would have been waiting in the damned delivery room when Sam held Lucy for the first time. Sometimes thank God for Hollywood’s wish fulfillment, but THIS COULD NEVER HAPPEN. Anyone special that is a contributing member of society (eg: has a job) has to have some government employee monitoring their case. We all know that. And having a shut-in with agoraphobia giving out parenting advice is hardly a support group. An audience knows whomever if at all shot first in the Cantina, despite blasters don’t exist. Child Services do as f*ck exist, and would never wait for an incident with Lucy to intervene. Y’know how The Lord Of The Rings could never happen? I Am Sam sits next to that trilogy aboard the train of thought.

The second part of Sam‘s undoing fall at the feet of director Nelson. In a word: bathos. OED: “insincere pathos; sentimentality; mawkishness.” I repeat, a virulent case of the cutes. All the schmaltz shown in Sam is enough to render some rich chicken stock. What’s worse is that it all gets delivered in a dumb way. By dumb I mean didn’t the director pay attention to the film she was cutting? There was a redolence of an after-school special brewing. This got insulting not to mention preachy. Maybe it was me and may time hanging with specials, unable and/or unwilling to accept Nelson cotton candy directing, the the reviews and Rotten Tomatoes’ drubbing (35% on the tomato meter) supported my view. The audience score was a favorable 87%, however I wonder how many in that audience actually knew let alone hung our of worked with a special needs person. The dishwasher where I last worked had Asperger’s, right? He also said he had ADD. It was not the typical diagnosis. He did not have attention deficit disorder. He had attention deficiency disorder. Namely, he’d do anything to draw attention to himself. As well as slack off whenever he could. He was loud, boorish and pesky. But when his caseworker came around, he was calm, professional and collected. As soon as she was done with him he went back to being the Tasmanian Devil on steroids. Hand to God. I’m willing to wager a small sum that that 87% also never washed a dish in a commercial kitchen before, all the while the “hire-the-handicap” used the word as*hole like regular folks use the word “the.” Like Flava Flav warned: don’t believe the hype. Before watching Sam bring Listerine I all I say.

Sam was, in a word, unrewarding. We know how this is going to play out. We know the ending will satisfy our tear ducts. We know Penn will deliver the goods (and he does). We learn that the flick gets insulting, if not preachy to the cerebellum suffocating due the prefrontal lobes stuck in the line at concessions. So much good and potential here, only to end up with the metaphorical retard cornered. Again.

My host teacher may have approved of Sam, but I doubt Mr Russell would’ve. I sure didn’t.

Guess I’ll go water the plants.

The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Relent it. Saccharine. Warning: viewing I Am Sam may be factor leading to Type 2 diabetes.

The Stray Observations…

  • Why do all actors portraying specials always wear highwaters?
  • “Can I get a balloon with this?” My, how Mr Data has suffered so.
  • Cute Abbey Road nod there.
  • “Hello, lawyer.”
  • Special or no, new dads always make that face the first time their hold their newborn.
  • “Your ears are bigger and your eyes are older.” Again, dads…
  • Rosalind Chao? Keiko O’Brien? Another Star Trek:TNG alumnus? As a hooker? Kinda cool.
  • “Want some marshmallows?”
  • Can’t argue with the soundtrack.
  • “No more now, okay?”
  • We never really did find out what Annie’s issues were.
  • “That is the first stupid thing I’ve ever heard you say.” That’s a very good left-handed compliment.
  • *RIP Neil Peart, 1952-2020.

The Next Time…

Most Spring Breakers want fun, sun and rum. Others demand cash, dash and stash. And James Franco. Sorry that didn’t rhyme.