Steven Spielberg is a director who is matched by few others in terms of commercial and critical reception. If any filmmaker has built up collateral for interest in a dramatization of his life, it’s him. That’s what The Fabelmans is — a lovingly effective autobiographical drama with stunning performances.
As I’ve written before, there are some filmmakers I call dream-makers instead. Spielberg is one of them. The dreams he crafts often incorporate themes of family and the wonder of childhood. They can appear in his work even when the film is about something like dinosaurs. And, indeed, this film is an example of the perfectly honed execution of those themes. You can add in a love of movie art itself, too. Not in the sense of the industry celebrating itself but in the sense of one person’s consuming love of the art of cinema. The Fabelmans is more than just a coming-of-age story or a family drama or a tribute to movies, it’s a superb viewing experience itself.
“You do what your heart says you have to.”
In 1952, little Sammy Fabelman’s parents take him to the movies for the first time to see The Greatest Show on Earth. The experience profoundly affects him, particularly the train crash in the film. He wants to film his own version of it. From then on, Sammy (played by Gabriel LaBelle when older) is rarely without a camera. His frequent subject at first is his family: mom Mitzi (played by Michelle Williams), dad Burt (Paul Dano), and 3 sisters. Mitzi was a fine pianist. Burt, meanwhile, is an engineer in the early computer industry. “In this family, it’s the artists versus the scientists,” Mitzi says.
Of course, that means Mitzi encourages her son’s filmmaking while Burt constantly calls it a hobby. He says it’s not “something real…something that you can use.” Burt has a difficult time understanding how formative Sammy’s passion for film is. He does make an effort sometimes, though, such as when he asks Sammy to make a film out of their family vacation footage to cheer Mitzi up after the loss of her mom. He’s also capable of recognizing how good Sammy’s short films are. He makes a Western after seeing The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and later a World War 2 film to earn a Scout photography badge. They are delightful and well done.
What is not so delightful is what happens when Burt’s job transfer takes them all to northern California. After previously living in New Jersey and Arizona, the change is a shock. The Fabelmans are Jewish and Sammy faces more anti-Semitism than he has ever experienced before. The bullies are truly awful. Filmmaking turns out to be what makes the situation better for Sammy. He also goes through the ups and downs of first love. Making movies is something that is there for Sammy as adolescence and adulthood loom on the horizon.
“So he could get some kind of control over it.”
LaBelle is quite good with all this material, giving a very natural performance. Williams is spectacular. I would say her turn here is award-worthy. Mitzi is fragile and unpredictable but also fierce in an almost covert way. The bulk of the drama required by the script falls on Williams’ shoulders. Sammy realizes as he is editing the family trip film that his mother is in love with Burt’s friend and colleague, Bennie (a very good Seth Rogen). This eventually ends the Fabelmans’ marriage, which is difficult for all the kids.
But that’s a part of what maturing into an adult is about: learning to see your parents as real people with strengths and flaws of their own. Spielberg and his co-writer, Pulitzer winner Tony Kushner, understand that. They create a shape to these scenes that flow almost effortlessly into the next. This is an excellent screenplay. Viewers can’t help but respect Spielberg for being so straightforward about his early life. What could’ve been uncomfortable instead feels more relatable. As for other areas, the editing by Sarah Broshar and Michael Kahn is noticeably outstanding, while the score is a treat as well. No surprise, as it’s the work of Spielberg’s frequent collaborator, John Williams. I also won’t forgive myself if I forget to mention Judd Hirsch‘s scene-stealing appearance as Mitzi’s uncle Boris.
He’s not the only scene-stealer, though. This film ends with what might be the strongest moment in the film, believe it or not. Sammy is living with Burt in southern California while attending college. Burt is now more supportive of Sammy’s entertainment aspirations, and Sammy gets an interview at CBS. While there, the executive offers to introduce Sammy to a legend. Sammy is led in to meet John Ford himself, the man who directed The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, which Sammy watched earlier in the film. Famed filmmaker David Lynch plays the classic Hollywood director. That’s right, one dream-maker is playing another! Whereas Ford’s dreams are sturdy and classically constructed, Lynch’s are surreal and verging on nightmares. And yet, the casting works. Ford gives Sammy advice about framing in an abrasive style and then Sammy leaves to walk the studio lot, his future before him.
What is universal about growing up and what is so essential about film art mingle together to create storytelling magic in The Fabelmans and behind it is one of the best dream-makers of them all.
The Fabelmans is now playing in theaters.