I Am Sam

Director:Jessie Nelson
Writers:Jessie Nelson and Kristine Johnson
New Line Cinema; PG-13; 130 minutes
Cast:Sean Penn, Michelle Pfeiffer, Dakota Fanning

I Am Sam is a sensitive drama that deals with a mentally retarded man's courtroom struggle to maintain custody of his 7-year-old daughter. Talented Sean Penn throws himself into the role of Sam Dawson. His attentive performance overpowers the occasional echoes of Rain Man. Michelle Pfeiffer trades on her icy beauty as the workaholic lawyer who takes up Sam's case and learns from his undying devotion to daughter Lucy. The real star, however, is Dakota Fanning, the child actress who plays Sam's daughter at the critical stage in her development, when her mental capacities begin to outstrip those of her father. (Lucy's mother was a homeless woman who disappeared shortly after giving birth.)

The film is decent enough, but it often sidesteps common sense in efforts to heighten the sentimental impact. Laura Dern's character and her husband want to adopt Lucy, and they seem to offer the best, safest option for the poor girl, although director Jessie Nelson dresses them as villains. Well-meaning, well-acted, and slightly off-target.