I Am Sam
dir. Jessie Nelson
Opens Fri Jan 25

I Am Sam is a truly awful title for only a marginally awful movie, which is to say that despite the poor moniker, this latest Hollywood take on the retarded is not a complete disaster.

There are two reasons for this: a) Sean Penn is Sean Penn, even when he's playing (and often failing to play) a man with the intelligence of a 7-year-old, and b) a little girl named Dakota Fanning.

Who is Dakota Fanning? Perhaps the most adorable girl ever burned onto celluloid. As the title character's (i.e., "Sam's") daughter in I Am Sam, she elevates--or, if not elevates, at least notches-up a bit--every scene she appears in, making the film at least a little more tolerable than the usual Hollywood handicapped-trumping-adversity trash (see Nell, Rain Man, The Other Sister, Bill, etc.)

Still, this doesn't mean you should see I Am Sam, because you probably shouldn't. Films like this should rarely be supported--a Hollywood star portraying a mentally challenged (or handicapped, or just plain ol' retarded, whatever) character always sets the collective Spidey-sense a tingling. A shamelessly hokey tearjerker, I Am Sam is, like the other films mentioned above, borderline (and sometimes outright) offensive, and in the end, fairly worthless as a film, especially when a decent documentary can enlighten you on the subject far better than Hollywood sap ever can.

That said, however, if you do find yourself for some reason accidentally watching I Am Sam, pay attention to Dakota Fanning. Like Haley Joel Osment's performance in The Sixth Sense, her work stuns you with its thoughtfulness, making your squandered 120 minutes that much easier to swallow. Her character is manipulative, sure, but at least that manipulation is easier to take than the normal emotional beating such films usually dish out. And besides, she acts the pants off of both Sean Penn and Michelle Pfeiffer--no easy feat, when you consider the caliber involved.