Tuesday, May 13, 2014

I Am Sam Adoption Movie Review

** Lots of spoilers ahead. **

Sam Dawson is a man with mental challenges. He manages to work as a busboy at Starbucks, and finds joy in his life. He is easily taken advantage of. On one occasion, he lets a young woman stay with him. They sleep together, and she gets pregnant. She gives birth, but looks disdainfully at the baby. On the way home from the hospital, she abandons Sam and the baby, and is never heard from again.   Sam raises his daughter, Lucy, on his own with the help of a neighbor. However, Sam’s intellect is equivalent to that of a seven-year-old, and Lucy quickly surpasses him. Lucy and Sam love each other and are happy with each other, but school professionals are concerned that Lucy’s progress is hindered by her desire to protect Sam’s feelings. Sam is eventually arrested for an innocent mistake, but the arrest springs child protective services into action. Lucy is removed from Sam’s custody and placed with a foster family. Sam works to convince the judge that he is a capable father, while Lucy’s foster family desires to adopt her.  

The day before court, the foster family and Sam meet together. They decide to agree that Lucy should live with Sam, and also that the foster family will support Sam.

The Adoption Connection

Much of this story is set in the foster care adoption world. Sam works hard in a confusing and overwhelming system to have the right to see his daughter.

Positive Elements

Sam has a very supportive community. A neighbor teaches him how to care for Lucy, and his friends provide some emotional and tangible support for him. Eventually, even the foster family becomes a strong support.

The foster family decides to support Sam’s desire to have Lucy returned to him, and they agree to be supportive to him in the reunification. This is a best-case scenario for foster care – reunification with ongoing support from a family that has come to love the child. I’ve been able to see this happen before – a foster family that was simultaneously willing to adopt a child placed with them – and also willing to support reunification efforts and provide ongoing support to the reunified family. In one case, a child was adopted by his grandparent; the cheering section at the adoption was comprised of the former foster family, and they went on to be regular babysitters for the child.  I love the collaborative relationship that develops by the end of the film. Even before they decided to support reunification, the foster family had decided to always allow Lucy the ability to see Sam.

Lucy is able to embrace her father’s uniqueness. Sam is able to encourage Lucy to pursue her own uniqueness.

Sam is able to express one of his reasons for wanting to be reunified with Lucy: Long term foster care is a bad idea “because the foster parents don’t know her. I know her. Lucy belongs with me.”

The foster mother acknowledges that Sam loves Lucy.


The foster family is portrayed as having an unrealistically high level of power; they are able to choose whether to adopt Lucy or whether to return her to Sam.

The film depicts some very heavily emotional moments that could be difficult for some viewers. Lucy’s detention is very traumatic – she is pulled out of her birthday party. Later, police rip Lucy away from an embrace with Sam.   Sam is reduced to tears in court, and is manipulated into suggesting that he is not a good enough father for Lucy. Lucy is furious at Sam for missing some expected visits.

Weak Points

The film never explores Lucy’s mother, and we never learn how Lucy feels about being abandoned, except that she asks, once, whether her mother will ever come back. Sam does try to find a motherly influence for Lucy.

The reunification is not clearly depicted; After watching the film once, I wasn’t sure whether Lucy actually had been returned to Sam.

Some of the professionals (a social worker and especially a psychologist) are portrayed as crueler than is realistic, but we are able to understand that many of them believe they are acting in the cause of the child’s best interest (see Beasts of the Southern Wild). The court cases are also far more dramatic than most parental rights hearings. Viewers could be confused into thinking that these brutally combatative  court sessions are normal.

The foster parents are pretty oblivious; Lucy runs away from their home on multiple occasions before they begin preventing her escape. Fortunately, she always runs to Sam, and Sam always brings her back.


I Am Sam is powerful and heavy. There’s a lot that I liked about the film. It probably is not a good fit for kids or teens because the film centers. Birthparents may find it affirming to see the positive aspects of Sam’s portrayal – he is positive and loving. Parents who have had children in foster care may find it difficult to watch some of the court proceedings. Some mean things are said.   Adults considering foster care adoption – or other forms of adoption – could use the film as an invitataion to challenge their preconceptions of birth parents.  

Questions for Discussion

What makes someone a parent?

From the point of view of those arguing against reunification, why was reunification undesirable for Lucy?

What did Lucy and Sam want?

What would have been the best outcome for this case?

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