Directed by Jessie Nelson. USA. 2001.

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I've often said the Oscars will go to pre-determined winners. Every year there's at least one “Better give this to them quick..... they're not looking too well" award (Best Supporting Actor - Jack Palance City Slickers). There's the "Oops! Shouldn't you have won this last year?" award (Best Actor-Russell Crowe Gladiator. He should have taken home the trophy for his work in The Insider). Of course, there's the ever popular "Made us proud to be an American" award (every award in the book Saving Private Ryan). It's true, Hollywood loves to give it's precious awards out to those select few who have always played by the rules, or to those newcomers who haven't offended the big budget community yet. Each year, there are those performers who's performances throughout the year are remarkably good but as they've continuously thumbed their noses at the film community, Hollywood elects not to notice them. (Witness this years omission of Ewan MacGregor for his performances in Moulin Rouge, and Blackhawk Down.) Then there are those performers who's reputations may tarnish their theatrical accomplishments in the minds of academy voters; but their silver screen turns are far too luminary to be overlooked at nomination time. This is why Sean Penn is being consistently nominated for his roles in Dead Man Walking, Sweet and Lowdown, and I am Sam, but the golden doorstop has, (and I suspect still will) elude him on Oscar night.

I am Sam challenges the traditional ideals of what a family should be by showing the birth and upbringing of a young girl, (named Lucy Diamond Dawson after her father's love of all things Beatles) by a mentally challenged man, Samuel Dawson. Problems arise when Lucy begins to surpass her father in abilities. Family and Children's Services intervenes, and Sam finds himself in the fight of his life; to keep his daughter.

I am Sam. All Rights Reserved.Sean Penn (Casualties of War, State of Grace) stars as Samuel Dawson, and completely disappears into this role. This was a unique experience for me, as there were moments in this movie when I actually wished for a lesser actor on screen for Penn is so good, that he physically hurts to watch. His ability to slip into the characters he is portraying is perfect in every way. (Find me one person who wasn't in tears by Penn's final scenes in Dead Man Walking and I'll find you a person who hasn't seen it yet.) His power is no different here. I've never seen a character so irresistibly charming, and so emotionally devastating all at once. He is, and very deservedly so, nominated for the Best Actor Oscar for this role, but because Penn has always shown such relish in being the staunchly anti-Hollywood bad boy it will be a HUGE surprise to me if he wins.

I have been lamenting the lack of nominations for Blackhawk Down.  I have bemoaned wan MacGregor's conspicuous absence on the nominees list this year. Now I have another blunder to add to my list of complaints; where in the world is Michelle Pfieffer's (The Fabulous Baker Boys, Ladyhawke) name in the Best Actress category? Here is a strong female role, tailor made for Pfieffer's abilities to be emotionally tough, and yet have a softer side. As Rita Harrison, the lawyer who takes Sam's case free of charge, Pfeiffer creates a married, (but emotionally single) mom that everyone can identify with. This must have been a challenging role, for Pfieffer's character is in a almost constant state of flux from the moment that Sam arrives on the scene. Her beliefs are challenged, she re-evaluates her life, almost it seems, like a midlife crisis happening at the age of thirty. A superb job by Pfieffer.

Doug Hutchinson, (or as the X-Files fans out there will know him "Tooms") is absolutely beguiling as Sam's friend Ifty. As the gentle soul trapped inside a mind obsessed with movies, Hutchinson becomes this role with as much ease as he handled the role of the villainous prison guard in The Green Mile. Here is a character actor waiting for the right role to bring him to light. 

Walking into this movie, I was absolutely determined not to cry. I held out for a greater period than some of my fellow theatre goers I am proud to say (coming from someone who bursts into tears at long distance commercials, it is an impressive achievement). The authority and emotion of the climax is absolutely incredible. It's difficult to watch, but is so very worth it, if for nothing else than to watch Penn, a master of his craft at work. Sean Penn is truly at the top of his form here, creating a role that will stick in your heart for quite some time after the cinema lights come up. You find yourself rooting for Sam, as, on Oscar night, you'll root for the bad boy.

Jen Johnston
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