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'I Am Sam"
Cry, baby, cry

THE LATEST ADDITION to Jessie Nelson's canon of brutally honest tearjerkers – she cowrote the screenplays for Stepmom and The Story of Us – is a shining example of her talent for feel-good sob stories. I Am Sam, which she directed and cowrote, follows the good-hearted, mentally challenged Sam Dawson (Sean Penn) as he joyously becomes a father, only to be abandoned by the baby's mother. With the help of a few good friends, Sam manages to raise his daughter, Lucy Diamond, and create a loving alternative family for her. It's only on the eve of her eighth birthday, when Lucy begins to surpass her father in intellectual abilities, that their precarious arrangement is threatened. What follows is a heart-tugging examination of what it means to be a good parent and a unique glimpse into the world of those for whom everyday life is a constant challenge. Though at times the story teeters on the brink of overwhelming sentimentality, a number of sensational performances and a clever tribute to everything Beatles serve as saving graces. Penn is nothing short of extraordinary as the lovable Sam, whose only way of expressing complex concepts is using Beatles metaphors. Dianne Wiest delivers an elegant and understated performance as his agoraphobic neighbor, while Richard Schiff (The West Wing) is perfectly detestable as opposing counsel in Sam's custody suit. The greatest theatrical accomplishments, however, come from the two actors who portray Sam's friends. The filmmakers met Brad Allan Silverman and Joseph Rosenberg while conducting research at L.A. Goal, an organization serving adults with developmental disabilities, and eventually cast them in the parts they helped inspire. Musical bonus: the soundtrack is a kick-ass compilation of Fab Four covers by the likes of Eddie Vedder, Ben Harper, and the Black Crowes. (Meryl Cohen)