love? And how much does love matter? These two questions lie at the heart of the movie I Am Sam. This paper examines some of the issues of relationship dynamics at the heart of this movie, issues that are at the core of a great deal of social work and various therapeutic or quasi-therapeutic relationships. Often counselors become involved in assessing primary relationships that are certainly marked by a high degree of love and devotion but that are not necessarily healthy for all of the parties concerned. Anyone who has been involved in the field of counseling knows that in some cases love is indeed not enough - although they also know that it is an excellent starting point for stable, healthy relationships. Here, love may well be sufficient.
The movie tells the story of Sam Dawson (played by Sean Penn), who despite the fact that he is mentally-challenged, is trying to raise his daughter Lucy (played by Dakota Fanning) as a single parent. He is being helped in his duties as a parent by a large group of caring and competent friends; one of the important dynamics that this movie emphasizes is that being a "single parent" is not a homogeneous condition. A single parent who is mentally-challenged and socially isolated would have a considerably more difficult task in raising a child by himself or herself than would a single parent with the same level of mental disability.
The action of the movie is prompted by Lucy's growing up - and beginning at the age of seven both to understand the degree to which her father is different from other adults and to overtake him in cognitive tasks. As both of them come to see that she is becoming smarter than he is and that the intellectual gap between the two of them will only continue to grow in the future. However, despite this recognition on the part of the two, they remain close to each other - until their bond of intimacy is broken when her situation comes to the attention of a social worker who wants to remove her from the home that she shares with her father and place her within the foster care system. The event that prompts this confrontation between the natal family and the social work system is Lucy's beginning to slow down her learning in school so that she will not in fact surpass her father.
Sam vows to fight against the array of forces that want to take his daughter away from him and enlists the aid of a high-powered attorney, Rita Harrison (played by Michelle Pfeiffer), who takes on the case not out of compassion for the family but because she likes the challenge of what seems to be a hopeless case. Of course, in the end, Sam gets his daughter back even as he and Harrison form a relationship between the two of them that is in many ways as intimate and as based on unconditional love and the acceptance of people the way that they are as is Sam's relationship with Lucy.
The movie suggests a dependency framework through which we can understand the relationship of the people involved, as Winton (1995) outlines such a framework. Most of the "good characters," including Sam, Lucy, Rita and Sam's friends and neighbors, are dependent on each other. They could not get through their daily lives without each other. The movie posits that at least some level of dependence lies at the heart of a range of different types of relationships, including both intimacy and love and even relationships based in sexual attraction. (The opening events of this story, in which Sam invites a homeless woman to spend the night with him and then impregnates her, and her choice to stay with him only until she has given birth is an excellent example in the film of this reliance on a dependence framework of relationships.) Many people - both counselors and laity - argue that intimacy, which implies an appreciation for the strengths that each person brings to a relationship, is a better framework for relationships that dependence, which is almost always based on a central inequality within the relationship (Chase, 1999).
While not dismissing the importance of intimacy, this movie suggests that such a framework for human relationships, and especially for familial relationships, is attractive but unrealistic. Relationships are not the perfectly balanced systems of emotional exchanges that people might want them to be: In any given relationship at any given time one person will be giving more than another. In most long-term relationships, this imbalance averages out over time. But in some - and among these must certainly be counted those relationships involving people with disabilities - the relationship will always be one of dependence. This does not, of course, mean that it is necessarily unhealthful or that it is not rewarding to those involved in it. The filmmakers here suggest that such an imbalance runs through more relationships than perhaps we are generally accustomed to acknowledge as being based on such a fundamental asymmetry (Erber & Gilmour, 1994).
One question that the film brings up is the issue of how appropriate the intervention on the part of the social worker is in a case like this, and in this regard the film departs dramatically from any realistic grounding in the ways in which social-care workers actually do their jobs - either in America, where the film is set, or in Australia. It seems highly unlikely that Lucy's underperforming at school would actually bring her to the attention of child-protective services given the strain that the child-protective system is under in the United States. With astronomically high caseloads and an often stultifying bureaucracy, social workers in the United States would in general simply not have the time to work a case like that of Lucy; their time would be taken up with far more terrible cases, such as those in which parents try to murder their children.
Beyond the question of realism is the question of how appropriate it is for a social worker to intervene in a family situation like this, and it seems that overall it would not be appropriate. This is not to say that in every case of a mentally disabled parent a child should live with that parent; each case must be decided on its own merits. One of the failures of this film, if we are looking at it as an investigation into the ways in which the state may or may not intrude into the lives of families, is that there is very little information given to us, the viewer, about Sam's condition. This would of course be something that any counselor working on such a case would investigate thoroughly.
Lucy is presented to us as an angelic, absolutely well-adjusted child (she is preternaturally well spoken in the courtroom scenes, for example), and this suggests that she is in fact receiving the care that she needs at home with her father. In general, in the United States, the placement of a child must be "in the child's best interests" and there is a distinct bias in the system towards the argument that the child's best interest is staying at home with her or his parent(s), unless the child cannot be protected from physical harm at home or the child cannot be protected at home from some other form of harm that requires her or him to be transferred to another home or institution. The tension between Sam and the child-protective services establishment in this film is largely the creation of the need for psychological tension on which to build a plot.
There is in Australia an even greater emphasis on the importance of keeping families together, perhaps as a result…
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