Once in a while an extraordinary movie comes along, defying everyone's expectations of what great drama is all about. "I Am Sam" is such a movie. But don't be deceived: This is not a film about Sam Dawson, a "retarded" man with a "mental age" of 7 and "autistic tendencies." "I Am Sam" is about you.
Here's the question "I Am Sam" poses: What matters most to you in your life? And here's why it's a tough question: The characters of Sam Dawson and his high-powered lawyer, Rita Harrison, can make you very uncomfortable with whatever answers you've been living with.
There's a catch. In order to experience the depth of the question, you have to get over Sam's disability, and that's where some viewers might miss the message. Many people might not know what to make of a movie where a person with a mental disability gets under their skin.
Of course, it's understandable that some viewers might be uncomfortable. It's understandable because people with mental challenges are the most neglected and misunderstood people in the world. They are still institutionalized, denied medical care, denied education and denied respect. They are usually lonely, mostly unemployed, sometimes ridiculed and regularly left out. A mother of a special child once told me that her greatest fear was that no one would come to her son's birthday party. She was willing to fight for her son, but she couldn't fight the fear that no one cared.
All of that may be understandable, but it's wrong. It's wrong because there are 170 million people in the world with mental retardation who, despite obvious challenges, have gifts that can and should be seen, heard and understood. There are more than 6 million people with mental disabilities in the United States alone, and for them, "mental age" is a narrow assessment of their humanity, and "disability" is a one-dimensional label for their capabilities.
The great gift of "I Am Sam" is that it reveals the totality of Sam Dawson. He is, in Tom Wolfe's words, "a man in full," and if you pay close attention to him, he challenges every preconception you have of mental "disability." That's not to say the film is sugar-coated. Sam struggles with significant limitations in a way that is both painful and difficult. But as he struggles, he reveals not just his brokenness but his wisdom too, the wisdom that the world too often dismisses and overlooks. The limitations are there, but there is also a rebellion against the way things are. And there are some things that are wrong to Sam that may be more wrong to you than you ever thought.
Is he deeply confused when cross-examined by prosecutors? He is. But there is a raw intelligence in his anger at a legal system that debates the life of a child in an adversarial proceeding dripping with gamesmanship.
Does he struggle with reading? He does. But there is disarming wisdom in his coping strategy: He gains comfort with material he can master and uses it to "read" bedtime stories to the child he loves with all his heart.
Is he anxious in new settings and when he experiences changes in his routine? He is. But there is an honest and self-protective design to his stress management: He sticks to environments and social groups where he is welcomed, valued and comfortable.
Does Sam struggle with self-doubt, insecurity and anxiety about his future and the future of his daughter? He does. But after you watch this movie, you will too. You will struggle not because you will worry about job security, rent payments or social status but because you will wonder whether you love your family, your friends and the people you cherish enough to make life worth living.
At the end of "I Am Sam," 7-year-old Lucy scores a goal in a soccer game, and Sam is the referee. Because of his "disability," he violates every social norm, runs to his daughter, grabs her in an exuberant hug and cheers as loudly as he can: "Lucy scored a goal! Lucy scored a goal!"
I hope you don't miss that moment. Because of his "disability," Sam broke the rules: He didn't know the score; he interrupted play; and he showed shameless bias in favor of his own child. But at that moment, Sam Dawson, a person with "mental retardation," "autistic tendencies" and a "mental age" of 7, knew what he wanted to do. He wanted to celebrate the joy of life -- his beautiful daughter's life and his own.
Those are Sam Dawson's priorities. As you watch the movie and realize who Sam is, you may find yourself revisiting yours.
The writer is president and chief executive officer of Special Olympics.