Contrived, manipulative and shamelessly sentimental, this film is notable for the courageous reach of Sean Penn, who gives a bold, heartfelt performance. Penn plays Sam Dawson, a man whose mental development stopped at age seven. Sam’s job serving lattes at a Starbucks in Los Angeles gives him the money to support Lucy (the enchanting Dakota Fanning), the daughter he has raised since her mother, a homeless woman, deserted them after Lucy’s birth. Lucy is seven now, advancing beyond her dad and his obsessive love for dinners at IHOP, video nights with his four buddies (Doug Hutchison and Stanley DeSantis join two actors with disabilities, Joseph Rosenberg and Brad Allan Silverman) and Beatles music. The film is awash in Beatles covers, from the Wallflowers’ jaunty “I’m Looking Through You” to Sarah McLachlan‘s tender “Blackbird.”
So far, so bearable. But when the court intervenes and Sam persuades a workaholic lawyer, Rita Harrison (Michelle Pfeiffer), to help him keep Lucy, director and co-writer Jessie Nelson (Corrina, Corrina) sends the movie hurtling off the cliff into soap opera. Only Penn stays the course, turning what could have been an actor’s stunt into a portrayal of stirring emotion and blunt truth.