I Am Sam As An ADR Movie
by Carrie Menkel-Meadow
I Am Sam is a touching, ultimately uplifting
and beautifully crafted movie (especially for those of us relationship-junkies
who love the Zwick-Herskowitz oeuvre (producers of Thirty
Something and Once and Again, among other things).
But, for this reviewer it was a powerful reminder of why I stopped
being a trial lawyer. Some issues are just not meant for binary,
polarized decision-making produced by contentious, soul-killing
("I always win," says a chillingly sinister, but smiling,
Michelle Pfeiffer) cross-examinations. I don't want to spoil
the ending as cruel reviewers do, but this film does a wonderful
job of illustrating what can happen when the "baby"
isn't split by the court. Literally.
I Am Sam is the story of
Sam Dawson, brilliantly and gently acted by usually tough-guy
Sean Penn, who is "mentally challenged" so that his
seven-year-old daughter (named Lucy Diamond, yes for the Beatles'
song of the same name) is about to surpass his mental capacity
when the State enters. The movie is mostly about Sam's struggle
to retain custody of his gifted, beautiful, and precocious daughter
when the well-meaning social services actors decide he cannot
possibly parent a child whose intelligence is about to exceed
his own. But, as the Beatles' song says, "All you need is
love," and Sam has plenty of that. Not only in his own soul
and heart but in the wonderful support group around him, his
also mentally challenged friends, Ifty, Robert, Brad and Joe,
each "challenged" in their own special and very human
ways, and his agoraphobic neighbor, Annie, played artfully by
Diane Wiest (she is indeed a sensitive artist - pianist and music
maker, who echoes in her being the healing powers of music).
New renditions of Beatles' songs play evocatively throughout
the movie, tearing at the heartstrings of potential audiences
of both fifty-somethings and probably their kids as well.
The lawyers are well depicted in this film. Michelle Pfeiffer
explodes with the tension of a wound-up-too-busy- for-her-own-child-and-marriage,
high-priced and successful lawyer. Sam picks her out of the phone
book because her firm has many names in it but in the end the
client serves the lawyer better than she serves him. The County
attorney, Turner, played by West Wing's Richard Schiff,
will appear to many to be the "bad guy" trying to take
Lucy away from her father, but in truth, he is doing his job
(I know, I did these cases as a parents' attorney for many years
in the early part of my own career) to protect "the best
interests of the child," even if that means roughing up
witnesses with cross-examinations that delve into their own troubled
pasts. (In this case, sweet Annie's past pain is exposed on the
It wasn't only Annie's cross-examination that got to me. What
is well crafted in this film is the demonstration of how crude
a device is the modern trial, not only for ascertaining the "truth,"
whatever that is in a case like this, but how adversarial procedures,
attempts at dichotomous fact-finding and judicial resolution
of some human and painful dilemmas just don't belong in court.
Michelle Pfeiffer's lawyer character, Rita Harrison, can't trust
Sam's friends to take the stand, their mental "challenges"
making them too unstable and not "normal" enough to
vouch for Sam's quality of care for his child. Though Sam is
well rehearsed (too well rehearsed, as you will learn) it is
his mental challenges, his unique forms of human articulation
and his failure to grasp and enact the "manipulated"
truth of witness testifying that caused both my heart and brain
to arrest with the painful recognition that this is simply a
primitive method for making some very important decisions. Though
Sam is "challenged," his testimony points out that
rehearsed, structured, manipulated and "planned" testimony
is not only ethically challenged, it is false and wrong to make
some (I am not saying all) important legal decisions this way.
Despite my own years of preparing parents, experts and other
witnesses to testify in these kinds of cases, I never liked it
and Sam's story made vivid the reason why. While I don't mean
to diminish the human difficulty of the decision that must be
made here- who can parent this wonderful child who needs homework
guidance, a regular schedule and a flexible guardian through
the complications of childhood and then opposite-gender adolescence?-it
becomes clearer and clearer that while love may not be "all
you need," courts and trials are not the way to figure out
what you do need and foster care, guardianship and parental authority
are not the only ways to structure a parent-child relationship.
Perhaps I am such a willing audience for the Zwick-Herskowitz
(and kudos to writer and director Jessie Nelson) sensibility,
wrapped up in Beatles' music because there was a time when some
of us forty, fifty or sixty somethings from the Beatles' period
did believe that new forms of family life and new forms of decision
making and legal justice might be possible in this world. Laura
Dern's kind foster mother character, Randy, ultimately teaches
us what is "best for the child" is not a court decision
with baby-splitting custody justice but a world of many vibrant
colors, with many different kinds of parents, friends and relationships.
Michelle Pfeiffer's Rita Harrison, Laura Dern's Randy and Sam,
who we the audience learn in the end is wiser than many in this
film, show us not only that it "takes a village" to
raise a child, but that the moots and mediation processes of
those "primitive" villages have a lot to tell us "legally
challenged" lawyers who cleave to our own forms of rough
and cruel courtroom justice.
Posted February 22, 2002