Film Studies: “I am Sam”

“I am Sam” is a movie about a single father whose developmental disabilities make it hard for him to raise a 7-year old daughter. The movie was released in 2001, and it garnered a lot of acclaim for its portrayal of the developmentally challenged members of the society. “I am Sam” is a movie that focuses a lot on achieving effective communication between its characters, mostly because of the fundamental differences between them. In the movie, different characters rely on different elements to communicate with each other. This paper explores relationships and non-verbal communication as the key elements of communication in “I am Sam.”

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Relationships are an important element of communication, and they mostly rely on the context of communication being analyzed. In “I am Sam,” the main character has three important relationships. The first and most important relationship is with his daughter while his other relevant relationships are with his group of friends and with Rita, his lawyer. Relationships are governed by several aspects and theories. Aspects that affect communication include physical milieu, situational milieu, character roles, and most importantly, developmental progress.

On the other hand, the theories of attraction, exchange, relational dialectics, and relationship rules define relationships. The relationship between Sam and his daughter can be examined using one of the very first scenes in the movie. In this scene, Sam is meeting his newborn daughter for the first time. Sam hears her daughter cry for the first time, names her, and holds her in his arms. The nurse who is delivering the baby also notes that Lucy (Sam’s daughter) has been waiting for a long time to see her father.

Another scene that reveals elements of relationships is the scene where Sam is talking to his neighbor Annie. Their conversation begins with Annie rebuking Sam for mistreating the baby. In this scene, Sam tells Annie to come over to his house and help, but Annie replies, reminding Sam that she “cannot do that” (Nelson, 2001). This conversation between Annie and Sam also reveals that Lucy was conceived through a one-night-stand, and Lucy’s mother had informed Sam that she would not be an active parent to Lucy.

The life cycle of relationships has three stages; the beginning of the relationship, its maintenance, and its ending. The scene where Sam meets the newborn Lucy is the beginning of their relationships life cycle. The events that happen to their relationship afterward have a bearing to this beginning. Another visible element of communication in this scene is the exchange theory. When Sam is naming his daughter, he uses some of the greatest events of events in history as well as some of the greatest people as guides. This implies that Sam considers the arrival of his daughter a significant event in his life and a reward to him. Exchange theory dictates that relationships are about costs and rewards (Sole, 2011). The relationship between Sam and Annie has the cost of Annie being agoraphobic and the rewards of Sam, knowing that he can rely on her for help.

On the other hand, the relationship between Sam and Lucy’s mother had the cost of Lucy’s mother being unreliable, but it gifted Sam with a daughter. Moreover, the scene reveals that the stage of relational development between Sam and Annie is advanced. For instance, Sam is not bothered by Annie’s accusatory tone, and Annie expects Sam to be fully aware of her Agoraphobia.

Sam’s disability takes from him several aspects of intelligent communication. However, the elements of non-verbal communication are still visible in “I am Sam.” Non-verbal communication refers to communication that does not involve words. Non-verbal communication takes the form of eye contact, facial expressions, gestures, artifacts, and territory. In the court scene where Sam is being interrogated by Turner, the prosecuting lawyer, Sam uses his facial expressions to indicate that he is uncomfortable with Turner’s accusations.

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On the other hand, Lucy’s facial expressions show that she realizes that Sam is distressed by Turner’s line of questioning. Sam is also struggling to form his own words. When Sam is unable to express himself using words, he resorts to crying to pass on his message.

Another scene that expresses non-verbal communication is the one in the principal’s office. In this scene, Lucy’s teacher and the principal are discussing Lucy’s artwork. The artwork shows the picture of a ‘small man and a big little girl’ (Nelson, 2001). Mrs. Wright, Lucy’s teacher, is arguing that the painting represents what Lucy must be feeling about his father’s intellectual development.

In the first scene, the moviemakers want to indicate that Sam’s disability does not take away his ability to communicate. Although Sam is not able to formulate responses to the questions Turner is asking him; his facial expressions indicate that he understands them. However, Turner takes advantage of his slow nature and is even able to make him cry. On the other hand, Lucy’s artifact is used as a non-verbal tool of communication. Nevertheless, Mrs. Wright has to use backing-evidence to prove her point, and she refers to Lucy’s behaviors in the classroom.

As a developmentally challenged individual, Sam faces many communication deficiencies. However, most of the people who interact with Sam are aware of his condition, and they make-up for his shortcomings through effective communication. Nevertheless, Sam takes the time to listen and shows compassion and empathy. I think all of us can learn very valuable lessons from Sam about communication and the appreciation of what we have.


Nelson, J (Director). (2001). I am Sam [DVD]. Hollywood, CA: The Bedford Falls Company.

Sole, K. (2011). Making connections: Understanding interpersonal communications. San Diego, CA: Bridgepoint Education.

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