Movies are a way for us to escape some of the difficulties of the real world. And Steven Spielberg has been able to take audiences on some great cinematic adventures or put us in the middle of danger by retelling historical events. But for “The Fabelmans,” he gets personal as he tells us his coming-of-age story through the lens of a love for filmmaking. In a way, the iconic director provides us with an introspective look at his life and the transpiring events that would later make him into the filmmaker that we know today.
“The Fabelmans” opens with Burt (Paul Dano) and Mitzi (Michelle Williams) Fabelman, taking their young son Samuel Fabelman (Mateo Zoryna Francis-Deford) for a night out at the movies to watch 1952’s The Greatest Show on Earth. While the kid is scared that the characters on screen are big, Burt and Mitzi explain that it’s all a part of the experience and that the movie will be unforgettable. Naturally, all of the action would be overwhelming for the kid, but the scenes of crashing trains are deeply embedded into his memory.
It turns out that watching “The Greatest Show on Earth” would be essential for Sammy, as he would recreate that same scene using the toy trains he received during Hanukah. Of course, such destruction incurred his dad’s wrath, who took away the toy trains and promised he would get it back if he learned some responsibility. But seeing how Sammy was recreating those breathtaking moments, Mitzi allows him to film the crash scene just this once so that he can watch his work repeatedly without having to crash the train set multiple times.
It’s only when the film introduces us to an older Sammy (Gabriel LaBelle) that we get to see the spark of a filmmaker ignite. And soon, he gets everyone from his boy scout troop, dad, and sister involved in his films. He feels safe whenever he is filming, putting the film together, or problem-solving to overcome the fake aspects of his film with visual effects trickery.
Though a majority of “The Fabelmans” follows Sammy’s journey as a filmmaker, the film does peer into the lives of those who are around him, like Burt, Mitzi, and Sammy’s siblings Reggie Fabelman (Julia Butters), Natalie Fabelman (Keeley Karsten), and Lisa Fabelman (Sophia Kopera). Then there’s Bennie Loewy (Seth Rogen), Burt’s best friend and co-worker, who becomes a surrogate uncle to Sammy. While Sammy’s constant filmmaking captures joyous, tragic, and melancholic moments, it also allows him to connect with others and develop relationships. But for some, watching these moments can reveal that a family may not look as happy and peaceful in real life as they do on film.
And so, “The Fabelmans” isn’t so much of Spielberg taking out his frustrations of a difficult life through characters he created. Spielberg and co-writer Tony Kushner take care in chronicling the former’s story with poignancy and nuance. Janusz Kamiński’s cinematography pulls us into the film and gives us a glimpse at the life of a budding filmmake toiling away at the editing machine or watching his latest reel spool. At the same time, John Williams’s score naturally provides the story with a fresh and cinematic feel that is both whimsy and fun but also emotional and heartfelt.
LaBelle is the beating heart of the film, and as such, we see how he sees the world through the lens of filmmaking. At times, this can be an alienating experience, with Burt unable to connect with his son because making movies isn’t practical in the real world. He sees it as a hobby. And Dano’s performance is reserved and methodical, staying true to the psychology of a dad who thinks more in binary code. At the same time, Mitzi is more of a free spirit who expresses herself through music but has wisdom in understanding the nature of love. But as someone who is opposed to her husband, Burt and Mitzi cannot have a healthy relationship.
While the principal cast give outstanding performances, Rogen and Judd Hirsch stole the film with the minimal time that they are given. Rogen’s Bennie is a close family friend and surrogate uncle to the Fabelmans, and while his screentime is relatively small, it has a lasting impact. The actor shows just how much range he has, throwing in some humorous moments while walking that fine line of a family friend who also has a secret – and one that forever changes Sammy. Bennie is arguably one of Rogen’s best dramatic performances to date.
Hirsch plays an even more minor role as Sammy’s Uncle Boris, who understands that art is a lot like a drug, and once you’re hooked, its hard to get off it. OF course, Sammy is unsure what to make of what Uncle Boris is saying at first. Still, it becomes more apparent when he encourages Sammy to continue pursuing his love of filmmaking, even if he loves it a little more than his family.
They fall out of love both in front and behind the camera. And Sammy watches all of that unfold no matter which side he’s on. It becomes even more difficult for him when he has to hold a terrible secret that no teenager should ever be burdened with. Not only that, there’s no home stability in the family as the Fabelmans constantly relocate from one place to another because Burt’s job demands it. And one move is more complex than the rest, as high school bullies at Sammy’s new school are antisemitic.
But Spielberg and Kushner’s script lightens the mood through some playful teenage romance as Sammy falls for Monica (Chloe East), a Christian girl who thinks he needs to be saved. Her love of Jesus is similar to that of girls fawning over the latest boy band. The entire scene itself is strangely hilarious as Sammy deals with the uncomfortable fact that Monica is trying to convert him. The whole ordeal is just funny to watch.
There’s something so refreshing about watching a director be so open to telling his story in such a way that leaves him vulnerable. Throughout his entire career, Spielberg has taken us on globetrotting adventures hunting for treasure and showed us a part of history that deserves to be told. And yet, “The Fabelmans” gives us something that’s more than magical, it reveals to us a part of him that has gone unseen, and how those unseen events have forged him into becoming the director he is now.