Jessie Nelson and Kristine Johnson, who co-wrote the screenplay, researched the issues facing adults with intellectual disabilities by visiting the non-profit organization L.A. GOAL (Greater Opportunities for the Advanced Living). They subsequently cast two actors with disabilities, Brad Silverman and Joe Rosenberg, in key roles.
For his role as Sam, Penn was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor at the 74th Academy Awards in 2002.
The film launched the career of child actress Dakota Fanning, who was then seven years old and had only acted in two small roles. She became the youngest actress to be nominated for a Screen Actors Guild Award.
The movie's title is derived from the opening lines "I am Sam / Sam I am" of the book Green Eggs and Ham, which is read in the movie.
Sam Dawson (Sean Penn), a man with a developmental disability, is the single father of Lucy (Dakota Fanning), following their abandonment by her mother, who is revealed to be a homeless woman who "just needed a place to sleep". Despite his limitations, Sam is well-adjusted and has a supportive group of friends with developmental disabilities, as well as a kind, agoraphobic neighbor Annie (Dianne Wiest) who takes care of Lucy when Sam cannot. Though Sam provides a loving and caring environment for precocious Lucy, she soon surpasses his mental ability. Other children tease her for having a "retard" as a father, and she becomes too embarrassed to accept that she is more intellectually advanced than Sam.
After his parenting abilities come into question, and on the advice of his friends, Sam approaches a high-powered lawyer, Rita Harrison (Michelle Pfeiffer), whose brusque manner, fast-paced schedule and difficult personal life have earned her a reputation as cold and unfeeling. In an attempt to prove to others that she is not heartless, Rita surprisingly agrees to take on Sam's case pro bono. As they work together to secure Sam's parental rights, Sam unwittingly helps Rita with her family problems, including encouraging her to leave her philandering husband and repairing her fractious relationship with her son. She and Sam have a physical and emotional moment together when they reveal that they never feel good enough.
At the trial, Sam breaks down after opposing counsel convinces him that he is not capable of being a father. After the trial, Lucy resides in a foster home with Randy Carpenter (Laura Dern), but tries to convince Sam to help her run away, and continually escapes in the middle of the night to go to Sam's apartment, whereupon (having learned from the failed attempt to run away) he immediately returns her. Ultimately, the foster family decide not to adopt her like they initially planned. They decide to return her to Sam, Randy will tell the judge that Sam is a suitable and better parent for Lucy. Sam also made an arrangement that Randy will help him raise her.
The final scene depicts a soccer game, which Sam referees and in which Lucy participates as a player. In attendance are Lucy's former foster family, Sam's friendship group, and a newly single Rita with her son.Sean Penn as Samuel John "Sam" Dawson
Michelle Pfeiffer as Rita Harrison Williams
Dakota Fanning as Lucy Diamond Dawson
Allison and Jillian Thormahlen as infant Lucy
Ryan Williams as 6 month old Lucy
Felicity Ann and Makindra Sherry Forbes as 18 month old Lucy
Elle Fanning as 2 year old Lucy
Amanda Lehaf as 4 year old Lucy
Dianne Wiest as Annie Cassell
Loretta Devine as Margaret Calgrove
Richard Schiff as Mr. Turner
Laura Dern as Miranda "Randy" Carpenter
Marin Hinkle as Patricia
Stanley DeSantis as Robert
Doug Hutchison as Ifty
Rosalind Chao as Lily
Ken Jenkins as Judge Philip McNeily
Wendy Phillips as Miss Wright
Scott Paulin as Duncan Rhodes
Kimberly Scott as Gertie
Michael B. Silver as Dr. Jaslow
Eileen Ryan as Estelle
Mary Steenburgen as Dr. Blake
The film received mixed-to-negative reviews from critics. I Am Sam holds a rating of 34% on Rotten Tomatoes, and a score of 28 on Metacritic.
The New York Times wrote that "I Am Sam is not a bad movie, and its intentions are unimpeachable. But its sentimentality is so relentless and its narrative so predictable that the life is very nearly squeezed out of it." Variety wrote: "Undone by its best intentions, I Am Sam is an especially insipid example of the Hollywood message movie". The Chicago Sun-Times wrote that "every device of the movie's art is designed to convince us Lucy must stay with Sam, but common sense makes it impossible to go the distance with the premise." Roger Ebert also criticized the morality tale character of the movie, saying that "you can't have heroes and villains when the wrong side is making the best sense."
On the other hand, the Los Angeles Times reviewed it positively as a "most inviting and accessible film that turns upon a mental condition that most people would prefer not to think about." The San Francisco Chronicle commended Sean Penn for his performance: "Penn's accuracy, his lack of condescension or sentiment, and his willingness to inhabit his character without any implicit commentary take what might have been the equivalent of an inflated TV movie and elevate it to the level of art." The New Yorker, however, found Michelle Pfeiffer to be the standout: "Pfeiffer, enormously likable in the role, almost saves the movie."
Sean Penn was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor (the Oscar), the Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Leading Role, the Broadcast Film Critics Association Award for Best Actor and the Satellite Award for Best Actor - Motion Picture Drama.
Dakota Fanning won the Broadcast Film Critics Association Award for Best Young Performer, the Las Vegas Film Critics Society Award for Youth in Film, the Phoenix Film Critics Society Award for Best Youth Actress, the Satellite Special Achievement Award for Outstanding New Talent, and the Young Artist Award for Best Performance in a Feature Film - Young Actress Age Ten or Under. She was also nominated for the Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Supporting Role.
The soundtrack was nominated for the Grammy Award for Best Compilation Soundtrack Album for a Motion Picture, Television or Other Visual Media.
The film won the inaugural Stanley Kramer Award from the Producers Guild of America, and was nominated for the Humanitas Prize and the Japan Academy Prize for Outstanding Foreign Language Film.
The film is recognized by American Film Institute in these lists:2006: AFI's 100 Years...100 Cheers – Nominated
The Grammy Award-nominated soundtrack, in addition to a John Powell score, also has cover versions of songs by the Beatles. Penn commissioned artists such as the Black Crowes, Nick Cave, Stereophonics, Eddie Vedder, Sheryl Crow, Sarah McLachlan, Rufus Wainwright, the Wallflowers, Ben Harper, the Vines and Ben Folds, to cover the songs for the soundtrack. Penn's brother, Michael Penn, is also featured on a duet with his wife Aimee Mann.
As the movie was shot and produced to the original Beatles music, the artists had to record their covers to the same musical timing (tempo) as the Beatles' original pieces had.