I Am Sam

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I Am Sam
Theatrical release poster
Directed byJessie Nelson
Written byKristine Johnson
Jessie Nelson
Produced byJessie Nelson
Richard Solomon
Edward Zwick
Marshall Herskovitz
CinematographyElliot Davis
Edited byRichard Chew
Music byJohn Powell
Distributed byNew Line Cinema
Release date
  • December 28, 2001 (2001-12-28) (United States: limited)
January 25, 2002 (United States: wide) [1]
Running time
132 minutes [1]
CountryUnited States
Budget$22 million[2]
Box office$97.8 million [1]

I Am Sam (stylized i am sam) is a 2001 American drama/melodrama film co-written and directed by Jessie Nelson, and starring Sean Penn as a father with an intellectual disability, Dakota Fanning as his bright and inquisitive daughter, and Michelle Pfeiffer as his lawyer. Dianne Wiest, Loretta Devine, Richard Schiff, and Laura Dern appear in supporting roles.

Nelson and co-writer Kristine Johnson researched the issues facing adults with intellectual disabilities by visiting the non-profit organization L.A. GOAL (Greater Opportunities for the Advanced Living). They subsequently cast two actors with disabilities, Brad Silverman and Joe Rosenberg, in key roles.[3] The film's title is derived from the lines "I am Sam / Sam I am" of the book Green Eggs and Ham by Dr. Seuss, which is read in the movie.

The film received negative reviews from critics.[4] It grossed over $97 million at the box office, against a production budget of $22 million.[1][2] For his role as Sam, Penn was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor at the 74th Academy Awards in 2002. The film launched the career of child actress Dakota Fanning, who was then seven years old and had only acted in two small roles. She became the youngest actress to be nominated for a Screen Actors Guild Award.


Sam Dawson (Sean Penn), a Starbucks employee with an intellectual disability, is the single father of Lucy Diamond Dawson (Dakota Fanning), named after The Beatles song "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds," who is a 6/7-year-old second grader following their abandonment by her mother, a homeless woman with whom Sam had a sexual encounter. Sam is well-adjusted and has a supportive group of friends with disabilities, as well as a kind, agoraphobic neighbor, Annie (Dianne Wiest), who takes care of Lucy when Sam cannot. Though Sam provides a loving place for precocious Lucy, she soon surpasses his mental ability.

Other children bully her for having an intellectually-disabled father, and she becomes too embarrassed to accept that she is more advanced than he is. In danger of losing custody, Sam gets advice from his friends and also hires a lawyer, Rita Harrison (Michelle Pfeiffer), whose absorption in her work and neglect of her son reveal her to be at least as handicapped as Sam is, although in a socially acceptable way. In an attempt to prove that she is not cold, Rita agrees to take on Sam's case pro bono. As they work to secure Sam's rights, Sam helps Rita see her own life anew. This includes encouraging her to leave her philandering husband and repair her fractious relationship with her son.

At the trial, Sam cries. Afterwards, Lucy resides in a foster home with Randy Carpenter (Laura Dern) but tries to convince Sam to help her run away. She continually escapes in the middle of the night to go to his apartment, though he immediately returns her. However, the foster parents decide not to adopt her as they had planned and return her to Sam. Randy assures him that she will tell the judge (Ken Jenkins) Sam is the better parent for Lucy. In turn, Sam asks Randy if she will help him raise Lucy, because he feels she needs a mother figure.

The final scene depicts a soccer game, in which Sam referees and Lucy participates as a player. In attendance are Lucy's former foster family, Sam's friendship group, and a newly single Rita with her son.



The Grammy Award–nominated soundtrack, in addition to a John Powell score, also has cover versions of songs by the Beatles. Penn[citation needed] commissioned artists such as the Black Crowes, Nick Cave, Stereophonics, Eddie Vedder, Sheryl Crow, Sarah McLachlan, Rufus Wainwright, the Wallflowers, Ben Harper, the Vines and Ben Folds, to cover the songs for the soundtrack. Penn's brother, Michael Penn, is also featured on a duet with his wife Aimee Mann.

As the movie was shot and produced to the original Beatles music, the artists had to record their covers to the same musical timing (tempo) as that of the Beatles' original pieces.[citation needed]


Critical response[edit]

On Rotten Tomatoes the film has an approval rating of 35% based on reviews from 145 critics, with an average rating of 4.77/10. The site's consensus reads: "Not only does the manipulative I Am Sam oversimplify a complex issue, it drowns it in treacle."[5] On Metacritic, the film has a score of 28 of 100 based on 33 reviews, indicating "generally unfavorable reviews".[4] Audiences surveyed by CinemaScore gave the film a grade A on scale of A to F.[6]

A. O. Scott of the New York Times wrote that "I Am Sam is not a bad movie, and its intentions are unimpeachable. But its sentimentality is so relentless and its narrative so predictable that the life is very nearly squeezed out of it."[7] Variety wrote: "Undone by its best intentions, I Am Sam is an especially insipid example of the Hollywood message movie".[8] Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times wrote that "every device of the movie's art is designed to convince us Lucy must stay with Sam, but common sense makes it impossible to go the distance with the premise."[9] Ebert also criticized the morality tale character of the movie, saying that "you can't have heroes and villains when the wrong side is making the best sense."[9]

Kevin Thomas of the Los Angeles Times reviewed it positively as a "most inviting and accessible film that turns upon a mental condition that most people would prefer not to think about."[10] Mick LaSalle of the San Francisco Chronicle commended Sean Penn for his performance: "Penn's accuracy, his lack of condescension or sentiment, and his willingness to inhabit his character without any implicit commentary take what might have been the equivalent of an inflated TV movie and elevate it to the level of art."[11] David Denby of The New Yorker, found Michelle Pfeiffer to be the standout: "Pfeiffer, enormously likable in the role, almost saves the movie."[12]


Sean Penn was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor (the Oscar), the Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Leading Role, the Broadcast Film Critics Association Award for Best Actor and the Satellite Award for Best Actor – Motion Picture Drama.

Dakota Fanning won the Broadcast Film Critics Association Award for Best Young Performer, the Las Vegas Film Critics Society Award for Youth in Film, the Phoenix Film Critics Society Award for Best Youth Actress, the Satellite Special Achievement Award for Outstanding New Talent, and the Young Artist Award for Best Performance in a Feature Film – Young Actress Age Ten or Under. She was also nominated for the Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Supporting Role.

The soundtrack was nominated for the Grammy Award for Best Compilation Soundtrack Album for a Motion Picture, Television or Other Visual Media.

The film won the inaugural Stanley Kramer Award from the Producers Guild of America, and was nominated for the Humanitas Prize and the Japan Academy Prize for Outstanding Foreign Language Film.

Awarding Body Award Nominee Result
Academy Awards Best Actor Sean Penn Nominated
Broadcast Film Critics Association Best Actor Sean Penn Won
Best Young Performer Dakota Fanning Won
Grammy Awards Best Compilation Soundtrack Album for a Motion Picture, Television or Other Visual Media Won
Humanitas Prize Won
Japanese Academy Awards Outstanding Foreign Language Film Won
Las Vegas Film Critics Society Youth in Film Dakota Fanning Won
Producers Guild of America Stanley Kramer Award Jessie Nelson
Edward Zwick
Marshall Herskovitz
Richard Solomon
Phoenix Film Critics Society Phoenix Film Critics Society Award for Best Youth Actress Dakota Fanning Won
Satellite Awards Best Actor Sean Penn Won
Special Achievement Award for Outstanding New Talent Dakota Fanning Won
Screen Actors Guild Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Leading Role Sean Penn Won
Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Supporting Role Dakota Fanning Won
Young Artist Awards Best Family Feature Film – Drama Won
Best Performance in a Feature Film – Young Actress Age Ten or Under Dakota Fanning Won


  1. ^ a b c d "I Am Sam (2001)". Box Office Mojo. Retrieved November 19, 2010.
  2. ^ a b "I Am Sam (2001) - Financial Information". The Numbers. Retrieved October 17, 2014.
  3. ^ "Vedder, Crowes Cover Beatles for 'I Am Sam'". billboard.com. Retrieved 2009-12-27.
  4. ^ a b "I Am Sam". Metacritic. Retrieved 2020-01-31.
  5. ^ "I Am Sam Movie Reviews, Pictures". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved 2020-01-31.
  6. ^ "I AM SAM (2001) A". CinemaScore. Archived from the original on 2018-12-20.
  7. ^ Scott, A. O. (December 28, 2001). "Movie Review - 'I Am Sam' - A Retarded Man Tries to Keep His Child". nytimes.com.
  8. ^ Koehler, Robert (December 20, 2001). "I Am Sam Review". variety.com.
  9. ^ a b Ebert, Roger (January 25, 2002). "I Am Sam". rogerebert.suntimes.com.
  10. ^ Thomas, Kevin (December 28, 2001). "In 'I Am Sam,' Skillful Players Embrace a Heartfelt Family Tale". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved July 31, 2013.
  11. ^ LaSalle, Mick (January 25, 2002). "Penn plays sad 'Sam' / He's full of integrity as retarded father". sfgate.com.
  12. ^ Denby, David (February 4, 2002). "I Am Sam". The New Yorker. Retrieved July 31, 2013.

External links[edit]