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An Evaluation of Jessie Nelson’s Directed Film, I Am Sam

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The movie I chose to review is I am Sam. This movie is about a man, Sam, with a mentally disability coping with the struggles of raising his daughter. He has the mind of a seven year old so things get tough when his daughter, Lucy, becomes seven and surpasses his intelligence and the kids in her classroom begin to make fun of him. Sam soon gets in trouble with social services and finds a lawyer, Rita, to help win his daughter back. The movie ends with a couple co-parenting Lucy, with Sam. So in a sense everyone wins; Sam and Lucy still get to have their relationship and the couple gets a daughter and can raise and take care of her needs.

Sam’s character is said to have autism and a mental disability but did not specify what it was exactly. All that was said is that he had the mind of a seven year old. He was portrayed as a loving and caring father who read to his daughter every night and even threw her birthday parties. He also had a group of friends, who were also disabled, that helped raise Lucy. In one scene Sam did not have enough money to buy Lucy a new pair of shoes for school and all of the friends chipped in to pay for the shoes. You could also see how he struggled because Wednesday nights were IHOP nights but Lucy wanted to try a different restaurant. Sam went to the other restaurant but threw a fit when they did not have the pancakes that he wanted. It was hard for him to change his routine, but he tried because Lucy asked him too even though, with his disability, it was very hard for him.

During the trial to win Lucy back Sam did everything in his power to get her back. Rita, the lawyer, was portrayed as a woman who put work before her family and kids. This was the reverse role of Sam because all he wanted was to be with Lucy. Once she got to know Sam she tried to do everything she could to help him and they even became great friends and she became a better mom because of him. You could really see how he struggled in the trial due to his disability. It was hard for him to keep up with the questions being asked and sometimes when he got confused he would quote The Beatles or things that happened to The Beatles; they were his favorite band. The movie wanted you to feel sympathy for him and pity him because he wanted so bad to be the father he needed to be put was held back by his disability. This movie was a positive portrayal of individuals with disabilities because it showed that even though Sam had a disability it did not affect his ability to love. Playing off the role of Rita, which was the opposite of Sam, she was the typical lawyer who had lost touch with his young son and even admitted to hating him. This scenario also showed that people without disabilities are not perfect and can learn from individuals with disabilities. She even said in one scene, towards the end of the movie, that she gained more from their relationship than Sam had gained from it. This shows how special individuals with disabilities are and how much they can better the lives of others and all that they want is to be treated like everyone else, because they do have feelings.

Since the movie said that he had some form of autism I think they portrayed it well. Autism disorders are known to be on a spectrum and full of variety. Some people can be somewhat autistic while others are considered to be very autistic. Autism can, “affect a child’s development and ability to communicate and that includes unusual behavioral manifestations such as repetitive motor movements” (Kirk, 2012, p. 148). During the movie Sam constantly tilted his head up when he was frustrated and did not understand what was going on. This happened often in court when he was asked questions that he did not understand or too many questions were being asked to him at one time.

Asperger’s Syndrome is also considered to be on the spectrum of autism and Sam showed signs of, “a preoccupation with certain subjects almost to the exclusion of other subjects” (Kirk, 2012, p. 148). This is seen with how he relates everything to The Beatles or things that happened between the band members. Another sign of Asperger’s Syndrome that Sam portrayed was hand flapping, especially when he was excited. He also had a job at Starbucks and every sugar had to be in the correct order and in the same place which is also a classic sign of Asperger’s Syndrome. He also had a routine as mentioned before Wednesday nights were IHOP nights and Friday nights were movie nights with his friends. A difference in Sam and Asperger’s Syndrome is that he had no difficulty socially. He was very sociable and enjoyed meeting new people. Rita had a couple in her office who were fighting over custody and the mother was crying and Sam went up to her and gave her a hug to make her feel better.

With all this being said I think the movie did an excellent job portraying autism in Sam’s character. It was clear that he struggled in certain aspects of everyday life mentally, but he had no physical disability. One thing I did notice in the movie is that they kept referring to Sam as “retarded.” This movie came out in 2001 so I am not sure if that is what they were still calling people with exceptionalities but it made me feel ashamed of those people for referring to him that way. This movie impacted me greatly and by the end of it I was in tears. It was amazing to see a person with disability love someone so much and do anything for them and impact so many lives in the process. I have read several movie reviews and most of them say it was an amazing and accurate performance, for example, “”I Am Sam” deserves to be remembered for Sean Penn’s remarkable performance as a mentally challenged man. 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” (LaSalle, 2002). I feel that I got a lot out of this assignment and really enjoyed it. It was great to see the love and compassion that individuals with disabilities feel and how much they can impact society and the lives of others. It shows that even though they have a disability they are first and foremost a person who can feel and express themselves, just a little bit differently. I think this was the entire purpose of the movie; to make the viewer feel sympathy for Sam but also realize that he is not so different after all.

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An Evaluation of Jessie Nelson’s Directed Film, I Am Sam. (2019, January 03). GradesFixer. Retrieved October 24, 2020, from
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