Directed by Jessie Nelson.
Running Time: 132 mins
Sam Dawson (Penn) is a mentally disabled man who is literally left holding the baby when the mother of their child walks out on him. With the help of his neighbour Annie (Dianne Wiest) Sam does a good job raising his daughter until Lucy (Dakota Fanning) reaches school age and she becomes aware of his disabilities. Community Services remove Lucy from Sam's care and the usually hard-nosed corporate lawyer Rita Harrison (Pfeiffer) fights the case for the father and daughter to be reunited.
Sean Penn does an excellent job playing the loveable Sam whose emotional development plateaued at seven years of age. In a sense Penn's convincing performance undermines the pathos of the story. His Sam has so many obsessive-compulsive tics we can see why community services has some concerns about his long-term ability to raise a young girl. Compounding this problem is the characterisation of Lucy. She is the most articulate and mature six-year-old we are ever likely to meet. Even though the film wants to convince us otherwise, love does not make up for everything.
Michelle Pfeiffer cannot quite make us believe she is a ruthless beak who finds a heart. Her best scenes are not in the courtroom, but at home when we see Sam interacting with her son, Willy. We get to contrast Rita's model of mothering and Sam's ideas of being a father.
Through some stark ice-blue lighting director Jessie Nelson does his best to portray the cool world of the court and institutional care facilities as against the vibrant tones in Sam's world, especially when he gathers with his equally disabled and very funny friends.
This contrast of the two worlds reflects the rather easy choices the audience is supposed to make as well. But even though there are several warm and heart-breaking scenes we know our response to people in Sam and Lucy's dilemma is not nearly so simple.
Richard Leonard SJ