WHAT does it take to be a good parent? Is it maturity? Patience? Or simply just love?

These are the questions raised in I Am Sam, a film from writer-director Jessie Nelson, whose previous credits include memorable family dramas like Stepmom and The Story of Us. It revolves around the character of Sam Dawson (Sean Penn) and his daughter Lucy (Dakota Fanning). Sam is a mentally disabled adult who accidentally becomes a father as a result of a one-night stand with a homeless woman. The woman abandons Lucy to Sam right after giving birth to her and the befuddled Sam is left alone to raise and care for the baby. Through the help of his neighbor Annie (Dianne Wiest), Sam manages to overcome his difficulties of looking after Lucy.

Life for Sam and Lucy is all fun and games until Lucy reaches the age of 7 and starts to outgrow her father intellectually. The problem is brought to the attention of school officials and Lucy is forcibly taken away from Sam. Sam decides to fight the system by seeking the help of a Rita Harrison (Michelle Pfeiffer), a brilliant, overly driven lawyer who accepts Sam’s case because of a dare. And in the process of battling for Sam’s case, Rita comes to terms with her shortcomings as a mother.

Filled with touching and heartbreaking moments, the film does more than appeal to our emotions. It also makes us think. From a practical standpoint, it’s difficult not to side with the state’s reasoning. Indeed, Lucy needs more than love to grow up properly. She needs security, proper guidance, and good education. Unfortunately Sam is mentally incapable of providing these needs for her.

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However, it is also difficult not to agree with Sam’s point. Especially if you consider that many intelligent, professional parents make big mistakes in how they raise their children. Love is a very important factor in child rearing. And in Sam’s point of view, all his limitations can be overcome due to his great love for Lucy.

Penn gives an astounding performance as the autistic Sam. His acting is insightful, believable, and not overdone. Heart-wrenching moments like Sam’s forced separation from Lucy is among the film’s highlights. Penn’s emotion and depth evokes an overwhelmingly sympathetic response from the viewers.

Pfeiffer also gives a laudable performance as the neurotic Rita. Her acting range, however, dims quite a bit when placed next to Penn’s. Another standout is Fanning, who plays the 7-year-old Lucy. She played the role of Lucy with charm and wit which is surprising for a girl her age. Like Penn, she exhibited a deep understanding and maturity that defines the character of Lucy perfectly.

Entertaining and heartbreaking, I Am Sam is the kind of film that leaves a mark to anyone who sees it. After all, aren’t we all parents and children? Ma. Stephanie R. Hilario

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