I Am Sam

What are the “best interests of the child” and who decides? In I Am Sam, directed and cowritten by Jessie Nelson, thirtysomething Sam (played by Sean Penn) has the intelligence of a seven-year-old but works as a cheerful and sweet busboy at Starbucks; he hangs out with his best friends, other mentally retarded men. Though unmarried, he fathers a child by having intercourse with a homeless woman for whom he provides temporary shelter. When he goes to the hospital to witness the birth of his child, the mother skips out, leaving him with the awesome responsibility of caring for a baby girl, whom he names Lucy. With the aid of a neighbor, Annie (played by Dianne Wiest), he manages to bring up Lucy with tender loving care. At the time of Lucy’s seventh birthday, however, he is arrested for soliciting though unaware that he was being approached by a prostitute. His behavior becomes so excited that questions are raised by Margaret (played by Loretta Devine), a social worker, about his suitability as a parent. Soon, Lucy (played by Dakota Fanning) is taken away from Sam, and the judge at a preliminary hearing suggests that Sam should obtain legal counsel for the more formal custody hearing. Looking in the yellow pages, he finds an impressive ad by the law firm employing Rita Harrison (played by Michelle Pfeiffer), and he tries to secure her legal services. Extraordinarily busy juggling too many cases and a home life that is falling apart, she tries to put Sam off, but he persists. She decides to take the case on a pro bono basis, to impress her legal colleagues, and does her utmost both to find a credible witness on his behalf and to coach Sam into providing coherent testimony. Throughout the legal ordeal, Lucy is devoted to Sam, and wants passionately to resume her home life with him. After Sam loses at the custody hearing, Lucy is assigned to foster parents, who later petition to adopt Lucy. Since Rita has never lost a case, she organizes a way for the father and daughter to be reunited. Sam takes on two jobs to earn enough income to live in an apartment near to the house of the foster parents. Lucy then initiates nightly visits to Sam, who immediately carries her dutifully back to the home of the foster parents, eventually proving to the foster mother that father and daughter should indeed be together again. The foster mother, Randy (played by Laura Dern), even promises to testify on Sam’s behalf. At the end of the film, Lucy is playing soccer, Sam is the umpire for the match, and the foster parents are providing support in the grandstands. Presumably, the court has award a form of joint custody that enables Lucy to decide where and with whom she wants to be. I Am Sam clearly provides a happy ending after exposing the rigidity of social workers and the legal precedent that enables government officials to decide who can serve as a parent. Thus, I Am Sam appears to be an Americanization and Pollyannaization of the human rights theme in the British film Ladybird, Ladybird (1994), which is based on a true story in which social workers fiendishly removed several children and a newborn baby from the custody of a battered but loving mother even after she found a supportive husband and a stable home life. MH

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