Penn pegged for Oscar-worthy performance in "I Am Sam" |

Penn pegged for Oscar-worthy performance in "I Am Sam"

Andy Stonehouse

“I Am Sam”

Directed by Jessie Nelson; starring Sean Penn, Michelle Pfeiffer, Dianne Wiest, Dakota Fanning and Laura Dern

Showtimes: 6 p.m. today and Saturday; Sunday 3, 6 and 8:45 p.m.; Thursday 6 and 8:45 p.m. at Speakeasy Theatre, Breckenridge; 3:55, 6:45 and 9:35 p.m. today, 1, 3:55, 6:45 and 9:35 Saturday, 1, 3:55 and 6:45 Sunday and 3:55 and 6:45 p.m. Monday-Thursday, Skyline Cinema, Dillon

PG-13 for language, 133 minutes

BRECKENRIDGE – Of America’s many admirable (and sometimes creepily touchy-feely) strides to achieve equality for everyone, everywhere, all the time, one significant group always seems to get the short end of the stick when it comes to popular entertainment.

The past couple of decades of TV and film have introduced us to a rainbow of ethnic and religious groups, and even the physically disabled have started to appear as completely ordinary characters, everywhere from “ER” to cartoons on Nickelodeon.

However, we’ve been less welcoming to feature the mentally challenged as everyday figures in popular fiction – a reluctance that mirrors society’s ongoing-yet-anxious attempts for inclusion. Really, if you think about it, besides Chris Burke (Corky on TV’s “Life Goes On”) and the characters portrayed by Larry Drake on “L.A. Law,” Dustin Hoffman in “Rain Man” and Leo DiCaprio in “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape,” the mentally handicapped remain about as front-and-center as they were in the 1950s … which still seems a bit odd, given the affirmative action shown on the big screen for nearly every other group.

Hollywood’s set out to change that model with a new film that features a completely functional, friendly and outgoing protagonist who just happens to be a mentally challenged single father.

“I Am Sam,” which opens nationally today and has been snapped up by both Breck’s Speakeasy Theatre and Skyline Cinema in Dillon, features acclaimed actor and director Sean Penn as the title character – a Starbucks busboy who’s trying to raise a daughter (Dakota Fanning) in Los Angeles.

When the precocious 7-year-old begins to surpass her father mentally, however, it sets off alarm bells with social workers who question whether or not Sam might be holding his daughter back.

True to contemporary form, Sam contacts a laywer (Michelle Pfeiffer) to help maintain custody of his daughter.

According to the movie’s production notes, director Jessie Nelson and her co-screenwriter Kristine Johnson opted for as much reality as possible in the venture, spending significant time with mentally handicapped adults at L.A. Goal, a Southern California based nonprofit which helps people with developmental disabilities.

Penn also became completely immersed in the role, also working with clients at L.A. Goal (his on-screen friend Joe, played by Joe Rosenberg, has been affiliated with the organization for years).

This being Hollywood, of course, the movie’s mix of social message and feel-good theatrics has left critics with mixed emotions.

The Los Angeles Times’ Kevin Thomas came out in full support of the movie, calling “I Am Sam” ” … a most inviting and accessible film that turns upon a mental condition that most people would prefer not to think about … the characters have been written with much dimension, insight and nuance, and they have been brought to life by a cast that possesses the same qualities.”

E!Online also bought into the concept, although its reviewers detected a sugary taste to the concoction: ” … Nelson teeters on the verge of making this sweeter than a grande latte (with caramel), but Penn is restrained and top-notch … if you love Beatles covers … and have a high tolerance for schmaltz, ‘Sam’s’ your man.”

Others, like the Village Voice’s Michael Atkinson, were considerably creeped out by the affair: “The bargeloads of thorny reality the movie evades are stupefying, but Penn’s slack-eyed Candide edging toward a semi-romantic clinch with high-powered laywer/vanity engine Pfeiffer (typecast again) is more than the innocent moviegoer should have to bear.”

Rumor also has it that New Line Cinema felt that an open-minded America was also not quite ready enough for the prospect of a love interest between Penn and Pfeiffer’s characters – apparently you’ll have to wait until the 2030s to see something like that on screen.

“I Am Sam” opens tonight in both Silverthorne and Dillon.

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