Dir: Jessie Nelson. US 2001. 134mins.

This film about a mentally-challenged father (Penn) whose seven-year old daughter is taken away from him by social workers is as cloying as they come and will try the patience of even the actor's most loyal fans. Certainly there is an audience for this type of treacly fare and the presence of both Penn and Michelle Pfeiffer - as the high-powered attorney who tries to win the girl back for her dad -- will bring some people into cinemas. However, I Am Sam is unlikely to make the kind of in-roads at the box office for which New Line is hoping.

Sam Dawson, a gentle soul with the mental capacity of a seven-year old, has achieved quite a lot in life: he holds down a job as a busboy at a Starbucks coffee bar and manages to take care of himself. However, Sam has also made Rebecca (Caroline Keenan), a homeless woman, pregnant - but she runs off soon after she gives birth, leaving Sam to raise Lucy (an adorable Dakota Fanning) by himself. Although Sam is a loving and attentive father, the time comes when his daughter's own intellectual growth surpasses his own. When well-intentioned child welfare workers take Lucy away, placing her in a foster home, Sam enlists the pro-bono assistance of highly-strung self-absorbed attorney Rita Harrison (Pfeiffer). Needless to say, Rita isn't a very good mother to her own son, until exposure to Sam and Lucy reminds her of what is important in life.

In her second outing as a feature director, screenwriter Jessie Nelson makes some of the same mistakes she made with her debut film, the 1994 Whoopi Goldberg vehicle Corrina, Corrina. Unfortunately, her work here possesses an even weaker storyline and dialogue and more overt sentimentality. The music, by the reliable John Powell, is chirpy and bouncy. Nelson and cinematographer Elliot Davis (another usually dependable artist) favour a wild hand-held camera style, filled with split pans, slow-motion digressions, jump cuts: it's the kind of dizzying panning and zooming around one usually associates with the work of Lars von Trier and is not really appropriate for this kind of story.

Penn does his best with his Rain Man-style role (comparisons with that film and Dustin Hoffman's performance will be unavoidable) - but playing an individual who never grows or changes is not easy, since there is not much character to go with. Pfeiffer is gorgeous looking but offers a stereotype of a harried, outwardly tough but inwardly fragile woman. Laura Dern does a fine job in the film's toughest role as the foster mum who is breaking up Sam and Lucy's happy home.

Pro co: Bedford Falls Productions, Red Fish, Blue Fish Films
US dist: New Line Cinema
Int'l sales: New Line Cinema
Prod: Edward Zwick, Marshall Herskovitz, Richard Solomon and Jessie Nelson
Exec prod: Claire Rudnick Polstein, Michael De Luca, David Scott Rubin
Scr: Kristine Johnson & Jessie Nelson
Cinematography: Elliot Davis
Pro des: Aaron Osborne
Ed: Richard Chew
Music: John Powell
Main cast: Sean Penn, Michelle Pfeiffer, Dakota Fanning, Laura Dern, Dianne Wiest, Caroline Keenan