Pay attention: thisis how to enjoy I Am Sam. Do not - DO NOT - go to the cinema expecting a realistic depiction of a family shredded by a court case. Put aside the slightest belief that this won't be a formulaic, sentimental, feelgood wallow. On no account must you: (a) hope to be surprised, (b) worry about plot details, or (c) expect anything other than the glossiest, most ostentatious performances.
Anyone who can't cope with this should toddle off to another screen. Go catch an action movie or indulge your critical sensibilities watching some Mike Leigh dirge. The rest of us can adopt a comfy foetal position and allow Jessie Nelson's film to gleefully pound away at our sentiment buttons. Mock all you like...
Sean Penn is Sam, a cleaner at Starbucks with an intellectual age of seven. Somehow - the hows and whys are never fully explained - he gets a girl pregnant and she vanishes, leaving him, ahem, holding the baby. Supported by his psychiatric-dictionary collection of mates (a Down's Syndrome sufferer, a paranoid, an obsessive-compulsive and so on), our loveable hero happily brings up daughter Lucy (Dakota Fanning) until she hits age seven. At which point the legal system takes an interest, removing Lucy to a foster home and forcing Sam to fight for her return in court, aided only by Michelle Pfeiffer's uptight lawyer.
Penn's entry into the crowded Disability Act category isn't half bad. No matter how cynical you are about this kind of blatant Oscar-coaxing (rewarded, in this case, by Penn's third Best Actor nom) it's never in doubt that you're watching Sam the character and not Sean the Dustin-Hoffman-in-Rain Man impersonator. The same can't be said about Pfeiffer, though, who delivers her standard brittle turn - but then she's not really the lead female.
That prize easily goes to Fanning as Sam's daughter. Cute without being cutesy, smart without being smart-arsed, she's the bright-eyed emotional heart of the film. Remember how good Kirsten Dunst was in Interview With The Vampire? This girl's easily that good.