Mamiko declined to present the somewhat obvious anime film Grave of the Fireflies because, in her words, “it is too sad”. So naturally, she went with Jessie Nelson‘s magnum opus (and I’m not sure that’s exactly a compliment) I Am Sam.
I Am Sam is certainly unlike Grave of the Fireflies, which is sad at the end. I Am Sam is sad all the way through, or, more specifically, it decides to start tugging at your heartstrings at about the 3rd minute of the movie and doesn’t let up for the remaining 120. Things getting too emotionless? Whip out another sappy Beatles cover! Cheeks feeling dry? Time to manipulate a father-daughter relationship!
And what a unique relationship that is…
Sean Penn (Sam, after the guy in Green Eggs and Ham) is a Retarded-People-Are-People-Too retarded person, the kind who can’t really do anything more than hold down a busboy job at Starbucks, which makes him a very unlikely candidate to be a single father. But without Sam being a retarded single father, there’s no movie, so we get a contrived story about a homeless woman who apparently traded retard sex for a place to sleep and bailed out of the hospital as soon as the baby was born.
Sam names his daughter Lucy, after “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”, because he’s a got a big Rain Man Beatles thing going on. To be fair, this obsession is shared by the director, who seems to have forgotten that A Hard Day’s Night, Help, Yellow Submarine, and Magical Mystery Tour have already pretty much covered the “Feature-Length Beatles Music Video” category. (“Across the Universe”, not mocked here, came later.)
But Beatles and Dr. Seuss fetishes aside, the film simply allows Sam to raise a baby, by himself, up to the age of about 6 without any help outside of the occasional advice of a creepy shut-in who likes to stare in his apartment window. By the time that Lucy is old enough to read Sam his favorite picture books, I think he’s really gotten through the tough part.
But, no great story lacks conflict, and in the interest of having a chance at being a great story (and especially in the interest of having a chance of a great story starring a really cute child actor) the conflict comes now. Sam, minding his own business at a café, gets picked up first by a hooker and then by the police. “My name is not John, I am Sam” is the obvious joke and might have made the entire movie, but no such luck. Still, if there’s any way to alert Child Protective Services to the fact that a retard is raising a six-year-old, it’s to have him get picked up for soliciting.
Enter the antagonists – CPS, aka the bad guys who want to take the unconscionable step of placing a young child in a foster home with two non-retarded parents. Somehow, they don’t place a lot of weight on the testimony of a six-year-old girl claiming that she really loves her daddy and it’s totally OK that she has to balance the checkbook.
Oh, and Sam, being employed as I have mentioned at Starbucks, doesn’t quite have the cash for a lawyer. What he does have, however, is the power to manipulate a guilty conscience, which allows him through persistence to get the devil herself (Michelle Pfeiffer) to claim she does pro bono work in front of a large group of colleagues who know quite better. Whoops! You really stepped in that one, Michelle!
The rest of the movie mostly deals with her attempt to help Sam keep custody of Lucy. They are torn apart again and again, and we get to tear up every time! Lucy continually expresses her love for her daddy just as he is, and the violins cry “Weep, you stone-hearted bastards!”
And, of course, Michelle Pfeiffer, proud owner of a coffee mug proclaiming “World’s Worst Mother” learns a redemptive life lesson about family and love which was not telegraphed. At all. At least if you ask Sam’s buddies from the 70 IQ club.
Meanwhile, Sam has lost his case and Lucy has been housed with the overbearing Laura Dern (and her token husband), who wants to do things like give her a large bedroom in a mansion and enroll her in the Girl Scouts and buy her clothes and give her regular meals – you know, exactly the sort of thing that would make a little girl run away to the comforts of a hovel where she can toast her own Pop-Tarts.
Which, of course, is exactly what she does, every night. Laura Dern considers fitting her with one of those Invisible Fence dog collar systems, but in the end she decides that maybe some sort of unspecified joint custody might be the best thing for Lucy.
This apparently means that Sam gets to spend his Saturdays being a completely impartial referee at Lucy’s soccer games where she’s allowed to score easy goals and then both teams jump around in celebration because the retarded ref is happy and they didn’t really care about winning anyway and Laura Dern is totally taking them all to McDonald’s.
And we all cry happily ever after.