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Twenty years ago this month, I Am Sam hit movie theaters and was met with a lot of Bronx cheers. The non-fact-based movie (its ostensible heart-tugging features were so overstated that people kind of automatically assumed it had a true story behind it) chronicled one man’s fight for the custody of a child abandoned by its mother. Just like Kramer Vs. Kramer! Only in this case the man wasn’t a cosmopolitan urbanite art director played by Dustin Hoffman, but a sweet ingenuous Starbucks employee with a mental disability played by Sean Penn.

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The movie was lambasted by critics — its Rotten Tomatoes score is south of 40 percent — but it made a pretty fair packet of money at the box office, almost $100 million on a $22 million budget. Not bad, even then, for a non-blockbuster drama running over two hours.

But that’s not the reason the movie’s a cultural touchstone. The movie’s a cultural touchstone because Sean Penn didn’t win an Oscar for it. And in 2008’s Tropic Thunder, one of the fictional actors in that bilious lampoon of Hollywood standards and practices gave the reason why: Penn was too good. He went FULL…well, I’m not going to say it. You probably know the offensive phrase.

Nowadays, if the picture comes up, it’s in the context of some kind of “you can’t make that anymore” discussion. That is, it is considered in bad taste and outright unethical to cast a conventionally abled person in the role of a disabled person.

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There are a lot of reasons for this, and they’re too multivalent and complicated to unpack them all here, but a lot of them have to do with Rain Man, the 1988 film about a pair of brothers. One a slick amoral creep played by Tom Cruise, the other a sweet ingenuous autistic savant played by, um, Dustin Hoffman. Back then there was some pushback against Hoffman’s work in the movie. Which the filmmakers countered with the usual bromides about good intentions and the hopes that the movie would put a human face on autism, as if it didn’t have a human face already.

If anecdotal evidence is to be believed, the movie’s impact was not salutary; rather than foster understanding of what’s now referred to as neurodiversity, it inspired crass and ill-informed people (of which there are many in this world we all share) to assume that any autistic person could solve hard math problems without breaking a sweat, and could also help out at the blackjack tables.

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While the mental disability afflicting Penn’s Sam in the movie directed and written by Jessie Nelson isn’t specified to any useful extent, we know right off the bat — as we seen Sam’s hands sorting through coffee shop sweetener containers and putting the yellow ones together and then the pink ones together as John Powell’s VERY SENSITIVE MUSIC plays on the soundtrack — that he’s got a touch of what lay people reflexively diagnose as OCD. Sam is also loud, ebullient, prone to mood swings. He’s a Beatles nut who names his daughter Lucy Diamond. After the woman who bore this child walks right away from him as he holds the infant in a pink blanket, Sam becomes very confused in the infant care section of the supermarket. The movie’s “it takes a village” thread is introduced, with Dianne Wiest’s agoraphobic neighbor clearing things up for Sam.

Despite coming off like a hybrid of Jeff Spicoli and Bobcat Goldthwait in the earliest scenes, Penn gives a scrupulous and unsentimental performance as a thoroughly sentimentalized character. (That’s just my opinion, though; back in the day, a character calling himself “The Film Yap” said “Sean Penn gave the most professionally shameful, cruelly wrongheaded performance ever nominated for a Best Actor Oscar in 2001’s I Am Sam — a film that deserved the bullshit-calling buckshot fired its way by Tropic Thunder.”) Technically he really works, almost as hard as Daniel Day Lewis does in My Left Foot.

Today the question, though, has nothing to do with how hard he works, or how “good” a job he does. It’s whether he ought to be playing a character such as this in the first place. Over twenty years ago, the actor Edward Norton began the process that eventually resulted in the 2019 film Motherless Brooklyn, based on the acclaimed novel by Jonathan Lethem. For the entire process, he was always slated to play the role of Lionel Essrog, who has Tourette’s syndrome. At the initial news of this there was hardly a raised eyebrow. When the movie was realized, it occasioned a thoughtful piece on Norton’s career by Alison Wilmore, in which she mused “When it was published, the novelMotherless Brooklynwas set around 1999, and if Norton had put out his adaptation then, it might have faded seamlessly into the film landscape. In 2019, it’s a more awkward creation, marked by ideas and approaches that have accrued some dust.”


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Varied activist groups have argued that neurodivergent and differently-abled characters be played by actors who are themselves neurodivergent and differently-abled. That’s a slightly different proposition than the do-good casting of supporting roles often practiced in makers of hot-button movies. (Brad Silverman and Joe Rosenberg are two such actors in I Am Sam.) In 2018, Rachel Israel made Keep The Change, about two autistic people who fall in love, and the leads were played by autistic actors Brandon Polonsky and Samantha Elisofon. Reviewing the movie in the New York Times, I praised it and also noted that it was not “seamlessly crafted.” Part of the reason for that was that the personalities of the performers sometimes drew outside the lines of the movie’s narrative.

Change — in the way movies about people who don’t fit certain norms are made, and in the way we see them — isn’t easy. But it doesn’t happen without taking first steps. In the meantime, movies such as I Am Sam look more anachronistic with every year.

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Veteran critic Glenn Kenny reviews‎ new releases at RogerEbert.com, the New York Times, and, as befits someone of his advanced age, the AARP magazine. He blogs, very occasionally, at Some Came Running and tweets, mostly in jest, at
glenn__kenny. He is the author of the acclaimed 2020 book
Made Men: The Story of Goodfellas, published by Hanover Square Press.