Emotionally effective, “I Am Sam” works based on the chemistry between Penn and Fanning. Penn, whose edgy filmography could disincline Ma and Pa Mid-America from seeing this post-holiday feel-gooder, inhabits his character so completely that you forget this is the same consummate actor who starred in gritty indies “Dead Man Walking” and “U-Turn.” Fanning, in her first feature role, is charmingly earnest and positively luminous with her huge blue eyes, which provide a window into her old soul. But Pfeiffer, in a departure from her soft, audience-friendly protagonist roles, gives a performance as the harsh and unlikable Rita that is affected and unnatural.
Director/screenwriter/producer Jessie Nelson (“Corrina, Corrina”) employs a visual look that is highly stylized, sometimes recalling a documentary with handheld camerawork but also using a whirling camera, frozen frames, close-ups, whip pans and discontinuous cuts to emulate Sam's confused point of view or Rita's stress level.
Meanwhile, the plot--which admirably gives the government's position a fair shake by seriously questioning Sam's abilities to keep Lucy in line, help her with her homework and deal with her transformation into womanhood--reaches a false climax at the initial trial but then continues on confusedly as Sam and Rita wade through the legal system. There are the sweetest-ever moments peppered throughout--such as when Sam and his friends pool their money to buy Lucy new shoes for her first day at school and Lucy's multiple middle-of-the-night treks from her foster parents' to her dad's, illustrated in a montage in which she repeatedly pads barefoot past a suburban 7-11. But after all the political machinations, the ending is too pat as Sam's difficulties melt away with little explanation and the tough questions are never fully answered. Starring Sean Penn, Michelle Pfeiffer, Dianne Wiest, Laura Dern and Dakota Fanning. Directed by Jessie Nelson. Written by Jessie Nelson and Kristine Johnson. Produced by Edward Zwick, Marshall Herskovitz, Richard Solomon and Jessie Nelson. A New Line release. Comedy/Drama. Rated PG-13 for language. Running time: 124 min