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Film review: i am sam

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Even the Beatles songs in "i am sam" don't ring true. Maybe that's because they're performed by Eddie Vedder, the Wallflowers, Sarah McLachlan and Aimee Mann, who cover some of the Fab Four's best-known hits. (It's nearly impossible for filmmakers to get actual Beatles music in their movies these days, so they have to rely on covers.)

And though you might be able to excuse that, there's still no excuse for this sappy drama to exist; it's one of the least convincing, most manipulative films ever made about the everyday struggles of the developmentally disabled.

In fact, the film is so emotionally dishonest that it makes 1999's "The Other Sister" — heretofore the most insincere exploration of such disabled characters — look like a documentary.

The title character of "i am sam" is Sam Dawson (Sean Penn), a mentally challenged but self-sufficient man struggling with several challenges. The most serious of these is his obligation to bring up his biological daughter, Lucy (Dakota Fanning), after the girl's mother runs off.

To the surprise of many, he's up to the task — at least until she begins "holding herself back" to remain at the same mental age as her father. That's when a social worker (Loretta Devine) enters the picture.

After finding evidence to suggest that the girl may be struggling both socially and developmentally, Lucy is placed in a foster home. Needless to say, Sam isn't pleased, so he seeks legal representation.

Unfortunately, his lawyer of choice, Rita Harrison (Michelle Pfeiffer), isn't interested. In fact, it appears as though he may have to harass the tough-talking, high-priced attorney into taking the case.

You'd have to be dozing to not see where this is going (a possibility, considering the film's slow pace and excessive length).

And while performers like Penn and Pfeiffer would normally make even the most uneven material watchable, their work can't elevate this nonsense. (Though Penn and 7-year-old co-star Fanning have believable chemistry.)

Worse, the script, co-written by director Jessie Nelson and Kristine Johnson, hints about a possible physical relationship between the two leads (fortunately, scenes emphasizing that have been excised after negative reactions from test audiences).

Then there's the film's wrong-headed attempts to demonize characters, especially child services workers and foster parents (including Laura Dern).

"I am sam" is rated PG-13 for occasional strong profanity (including one utterance of the so-called "R-rated" curse word) and some crude slang terms. Running time: 130 minutes.

E-MAIL: jeff@desnews.com