Hidden Abilities

When filmmaker Jessie Nelson was growing up in North Hollywood in the 1950s, she was frightened of the mentally disabled. “I had the fear a lot of children have when they are not exposed to people with disabilities,” says Nelson, whose wrenching new film, “I Am Sam,” tells of a intellectually disabled father (Sean Penn) struggling to keep custody of his daughter.

Enter Nelson's communist Jewish parents, who were always toting her to Watts civil rights marches or to protests at City Hall. “Every Passover, the toast was that Jews, as an oppressed people, must stand up for others who are oppressed,” she recalls. “My parents were always rooting for the underdog, and welcomed all marginalized people into our home.”

Those people included friends with autistic or developmentally disabled children, and Nelson's fear eventually dissipated. “I learned to play with kids who were 10 years older than me, but at my age level,” she says. “I got to know them as human beings.”

Nelson remembered the lesson, just after her daughter was born seven years ago, when her writing partner mentioned a story she'd heard about mentally disabled parents. Rather than raising her eyebrows, the new mom immediately related: “I thought that was an amazing metaphor for how every parent feels,” says Nelson, whose transcendent 1994 directorial debut, “Corrina, Corrina,” tells of a Jewish widower, his daughter and their black housekeeper. “I think that all parents — whether disabled or not — can feel overwhelmed and confused.”

Nelson and “Sam” co-writer Kristine Johnson began envisioning a film about an embattled single father who is at the same age level as his 7-year-old daughter. As research, they spent six months at L.A. Goal, a center for adults with developmental disabilities. “We didn't just want to observe,” explains Nelson, who co-wrote the films “Stepmom” and “The Story of Us.” “Only by participating could we learn the true stories of people's lives.”

The writers brought those stories to the character of Sam and his friends. Like many of the L.A. Goal clients, Sam is an avid Beatles fan who talks about the band to describe his journey through life. In a pivotal courtroom scene, he compares his relationship to his daughter to how Paul McCartney and John Lennon needed each other as songwriters. His tightly knit group of friends cheers him on: “They share an extreme camaraderie,” Nelson says, “because our [non-disabled] world rejects them.”

If the writer-director keeps returning to stories about single fathers and motherless daughters, it is perhaps because she was once one herself. During the traumatic period after her mother died in a car accident, the then-3-year-old Nelson was raised by a succession of black housekeepers who brought comfort with lessons about God and heaven. The maid upon whom Whoopi Goldberg's character is based in “Corrina, Corrina,” was, in fact, elderly at the time she entranced Nelson. “I hoped she'd marry my father,” the director recalls. “I had no idea she was black or 70.”

Eventually, Nelson left home to study at UC Santa Cruz, dropped out to join an experimental New York theater company and moved to Hollywood around 1980 to become an actress. She switched to screenwriting when she realized that movie actors have little control over their material, but soon found that writers didn't fare much better. Her first screenplay about her experiences as a waitress, sold to Disney, but the script went through seven other writers and became “a rather misogynistic story,” Nelson recalls. “I realized that if I wanted to write, I'd better learn how to direct.”

She did just that, and after she directed an award-winning film, “To The Moon Alice,” for Showtime, she struggled for nine years to bring “Corrina” to the screen. The melodramatic “I Am Sam” took nearly as long: “Violent, sexy, edgy films get made a lot faster in Hollywood,” she says.

A major coup was signing Penn and Michelle Pfeiffer as Rita, the brittle, marshmallow-popping attorney who represents Sam. “She turns out to be a far more disabled parent than he is,” Nelson says. “It's just that she has a more socially-sanctioned disability.”