THE FABELMANS: 4 STARS. “bristles with life, love, frustration and heartbreak.”
Steven Spielberg has made personal films before but none are as intimate as the semi-autobiographical “The Fabelmans,” now playing in theatres. In the film, the teenage Sammy Fabelman (Gabriel LaBelle) finds the power of movies and storytelling help him deal with a family crisis.
Set in the 1950s and 1960s, and loosely based on the director’s childhood, the story focusses on Sammy, played by Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord as a child and LaBelle as a teen, oldest son of post-World War II era Arizona housewife Mitzi (Michelle Williams) and engineer Burt Fabelman (Paul Dano).
On his first visit to the movie theatre he sees “The Greatest Show on Earth,” a dazzler of a picture that leaves a lifelong impression. Soon, he is making his own short films, staging elaborate scenes with his toy trains, and later making live-action war movies with his pals. He figures out how to make special effects—like poking holes in the film to replicate gun flashes—and constantly has the camera pressed against his eye, even on family camping trips.
The world of make-believe is a comfort to the youngster whose home life is showing signs of strain. As Burt moves the family cross country for work, Mitzi, an artistic soul like her son, becomes despondent, and even buys a pet monkey to keep her company in their new house.
As Burt and Mitzi’s marriage crumbles, Sammy faces antisemitism and bullies at his new school, a father who calls his all-consuming interest in filmmaking “a hobby” and an over-the-top girlfriend (Chloe East), who has pin-ups of Jesus on her wall next to the pop stars of the day.
His journey ultimately leads him to a Hollywood legend who teaches him a valuable lesson in how to make movies—which is also the film’s best visual joke—just before the end credits roll.
Spielberg is often accused of sentimentalism, so it is curious that “The Fabelmans” is not a maudlin movie. It bristles with life, love, frustration and heartbreak, all blended together to bring the family, and especially Sammy, to vivid life. Sometimes life is messy—the cause of Mitzi’s “episodes” is difficult for Sammy to understand—and sometimes it is sublime—Sammy’s discovery of his pure, unadulterated love of film—but it never feels as if Spielberg is romanticizing the past.
The 1950s part of the film has a certain glow about it, as if it’s being recounted by a Sammy, just a boy at the time. As he grows up, and his understanding of his family dynamic grows, the film takes on a different personality. The rough edges are not smoothed over as Sammy retreats into the world of make believe as a remedy for the tensions at home. The storytelling is episodic, but never less than emotional.
As “The Fabelmans” unfolds, two scenes reveal the mix and match of the effect of Spielberg’s parents, one a technician, the other an artist, on young Sammy.
The first comes in the form of a visit from Sammy’s Uncle Boris, played by Judd Hirsch in what may well be an Oscar nominated performance. In his quick in-and-out scenes, he is the truth teller who explains what it means to make art; the pain, the constant need to express yourself. It is a burden, but a beautiful one, and these scenes lie at the heart of the film, the idea of what it takes to create something extraordinary.
The second scene, near the end of the movie, sees Sammy learn an important technical lesson from a legendary filmmaker played by David Lynch. Lynch chews the scenery, clearly enjoying himself, while Sammy drinks it in. Spielberg even throws in a visual joke to ensure that we understand how fundamental the lesson was to him.
Both are fun sequences that reveal the filmmaker’s twin brain, a mix of art and science, that also echo his upbringing.
“The Fabelmans” ends with a shot that will warm the heart of any movie lover, but this is not simply a film for fans of the director. It’s a contemplative, poignant look at how art, and how it is a balm that helps sooth us in troubled times.