Sean Penn has been given many names throughout his sometimes controversial career. One of those names, Sam, awarded the prolific actor an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor in a movie that can now be seen on Netflix.
In I Am Sam, Sean Penn plays an intellectually disabled man raising his 7-year-old daughter Lucy (Dakota Fanning’s career-launching film). Though he is disabled, Sam still has the ability to function quite well, he is well-adjusted, and he also has a bevy of friends to support him. His next-door neighbor Annie (Dianne Wiest) is agoraphobic, but she watches over Lucy when needed.
Though Sam has the ability to care for Lucy and provides a loving home, Lucy is passing him intellectually. The constant bullying from her classmates causes issues for Lucy and she becomes too embarrassed to accept that she is more advanced than her father.
Sam is now in danger of losing custody of Lucy. Taking advice from his friends, he hires a lawyer, Rita Harrison (Michelle Pfeiffer) who seems to have just as many issues as Sam. She is so into her work that her neglect of her son is unimaginable. She also has a husband who likes to play the field.
Rita takes on Sam’s case pro bono, wanting to prove she has a heart. As she becomes more and more involved with Sam and his daily life, Sam begins to show Rita there is more outside of her work and it begins with her son and ends with leaving her cheating husband.
The trial doesn’t go well for Sam or Rita as Lucy is sent to a foster home with Randy Carpenter (Laura Dern). Lucy continues to escape at night, but Sam always returns her to Randy’s home. Lucy is set to be adopted by Randy and her husband, but do they? The judge in Sam and Lucy’s case feels Sam’s intellectual ability is such that he can’t care for Lucy. Is there anything that could change his mind?
Sean Penn was nominated for a Best Actor Academy Award for his portrayal of the mentally handicapped Sam, an award he lost to Denzel Washington for his role in Antoine Fuqua’s Training Day. I Am Sam was directed by Jessie Nelson, who also co-wrote the script with Kristine Johnson. The two did extensive research concerning the issues facing adults with intellectual disabilities and even ended up hiring two such men in key roles in the film.
The movie was heavily critically panned. Even though the Academy fully appreciated Penn’s work, as did audiences, critics were not high on either him or the story. Most found the movie to be overbearingly sweet and one critic, Movie Mom Nell Minow, even took a shot at the disabled saying, “We’re in the land of “minority or disabled people as magical healers,” and that is never a healthy place to be for too long.”
But for all the negative there was a lot of positive from audiences. Nelson was given $22 million to make her movie and was rewarded with nearly $98 million at the box office. She also got a lot of publicity with Penn’s performance as well as Fanning’s.
I Am Sam is just one of many great performances Sean Penn has delivered throughout his career, which begun in the mid- ‘70s. As his career took off, Penn was gaining more and more critical acclaim, starting with his infamous role as Jeff Spicoli in Fast Times at Ridgemont High. In total, Penn has been nominated for five Academy Awards for Best Actor with two wins on his ledger. He won in 2003 for Mystic River and again in 2008 for his portrayal of Harvey Milk, the first openly gay person to be elected to a public office. His other three nominations were for Dead Man Walking, Sweet and Lowdown, and of course, I Am Sam.
Sean Penn’s movie career, while many times highly acclaimed, has also been fraught with controversy. From the partners he’s had to the photographers he’s tuned up to some of the more borderline things he’s said, controversy seems to follow him wherever he goes, even on the biggest of stages.
In one of the many controversies that have often surrounded Penn, he was on stage at the 87th Academy Awards presenting the award for Best Picture when he said what many thought to be racist and offensive. He opened the envelope to announce the winner and remarked, “Who gave this son of a bitch his green card?” before announcing Alejandro González Iñárritu as the winner for Birdman.
While many thought the joke in poor taste, Iñárritu himself thought it to be funny, saying it was a joke between the two as they had previously worked together on 21 Grams. As for Sean Penn, well he defended himself as if there were photographers taking his picture. He first expressed surprise at the “flagrant stupidity” running rampant then went on even further offering zero apologies. “I have absolutely no apologies,” said Penn via The Guardian. “In fact, I have a big fuck you for … anybody who is so stupid not to have gotten the irony when you’ve got a country that is so xenophobic. If they had their way, you wouldn’t have great filmmakers like Alejandro working in this country. Thank God we do.” Point taken.
Sean Penn may be many things in his personal life and perhaps even in his professional life, but one thing can’t be denied. The man is an acting talent. His resume is filled with proof positive. If you’re in doubt, find I Am Sam on Netflix. Chances are you won’t be disappointed with his performance.