The Fabelmans is Spielberg’s most personal film

fabelmans
(Courtesy Universal)

The current ads for iconic director Steven Spielberg’s autobiographical film, The Fabelmans, tout, “This is the film we have been waiting for Spielberg to make.” The ads are not wrong. Spielberg’s newest film is not only a grand masterpiece, but a personal love letter to artists, urging them to follow their hearts.

Sammy Fabelman (Gabriel LaBelle; The Predator, American Gigolo series) is devoted to filmmaking from the age of five, an interest that is celebrated and championed by his artistic and whimsical mother, Mitzi (four-time Academy Award nominee Michelle Williams who channels a younger Shirley MacLaine). Sammy’s successful, scientific father, Burt (Paul Dano; The Batman, There Will Be Blood), supports Sammy’s work, but views it as an unserious hobby.

If you are an artist, you have probably heard this yourself.

Over the years, Sammy and his various cameras become the de facto documentarian of his family’s adventures, as well as the director of his increasingly elaborate amateur film productions starring his sisters, friends and boy scout troop.

Mitzi is an accomplished musician with a passion for art who gave up a chance at being a concert pianist to raise a family. Based on Spielberg’s mother, Leah, Mitzi is full of love for her four children, as well as for her husband, Burt. But, like so many women of her generation, Mitzi has sublimated her own career, ambitions and desires to fit society’s expectations and norms and to care for others.

Williams injects a bold personality and turbulent soul into Mitzi. She is straining within the walls of this traditional, mid-century American life, and her yearning for something more, to feel more alive and fully herself, affects her decisions with a deep longing and sadness that Sammy can sense intuitively but can’t fully understand. In one vivid, intense scene, Mitzi piles her kids into the car and goes chasing after a twister ripping through their New Jersey town.

More grounded than his wife, Mitzi, but no less rich a character, Burt is a World War II veteran and pioneering computer designer whose innovative work in data storage systems earns him career advancement, first with RCA, then with General Electric, a job that takes him and his family—and his best friend and colleague, Bennie—from New Jersey to Arizona.

He adores his wife and worries greatly about her increasing ennui, but he’s unsure of how to help her. He’s a loving father and delights in Sammy’s maturing skills as a filmmaker, though he struggles to appreciate Sammy’s filmmaking as anything more than a hobby. Dano effortlessly gives Burt this issue of being grounded while hopelessly attempting to keep his marriage to flighty Mitzi. This can be seen especially when Mitzi buys a monkey.

By 16, Sammy (reminiscent of a young Dustin Hoffman) is both the primary observer and archivist of his family story, but when his family moves west, Sammy discovers a heartbreaking truth about Mitzi that will redefine their relationship and alter the future for himself and his entire family. This discovery leads to Sammy putting down his camera.

After the Fabelmans move to California, Sammy encounters three people who will have a significant impact on his high school experience.

While in high school, Sammy encounters overt, hostile anti-Semitism for the first time in the form of Logan Hall, a jock-ish big man on campus with a glimmer of conscience, and his more toxic and insecure sidekick, Chad Thomas.

Hall is played by Australian newcomer Sam Rechner (Ruby’s Choice) and Thomas is played by Oakes Fegley (The Goldfinch, Pete’s Dragon).

Just when things seem like it will take a turn for the worst, Sammy meets Monica Sherwood, played by Chloe East (Generation series), a popular high school student with an earnest, extroverted personality and a complicated fascination with Sammy’s Judaism.

A devout Christian, she treats Sammy as both a crush-worthy exotic and a soul that needs to be saved. Monica fails to convert Sammy (to Christianity, at least), but she does facilitate a born-again change, of sorts, when she introduces Sammy to her father’s 16mm camera. Monica encourages him to film their senior class ditch day, which reignites his passion for filmmaking.

The surprising culmination of their conflict occurs at prom, where Sammy screens his film of senior ditch day that presents Logan and Chad in very different ways, eliciting starkly different reactions and opening Sammy’s eyes to the powers and consequences of image-making.

There are scenes in The Fabelmans that feel like they were lifted directly from my own childhood. There’s young Sammy playing with and blowing up his train set. Not only was I a train aficionado, but I used to take my mother’s yellow cereal bowls and glue them to saucers. I’d take a marker and make Jupiter Two’s of them from Lost in Space. All for the camera.

Then there was the time my mother took my camera and aided and abetted my moviemaking career. First up – the opening scene from The Poseidon Adventure.

And I, too, had a dad who was more grounded than my whimsical mom and wanted me to stop my movie hobby” and concentrate on being a Chemical Engineer. So, The Fabelmans spoke to me as an artist, a dreamer, and someone who followed their heart.

And while Sammy experiences high school as an outcast because of his Judaism, I felt that same way – an outlier due to my biracialness.

While The Fabelmans is a coming-of-age story and an intimate family drama, the film has the scope, kinetic energy and thrilling set pieces that are a hallmark of Spielberg films, even as it reveals the origin of those hallmarks. This can be attributed to longtime Spielberg collaborator and cinematographer, Janusz Kaminiski.

Kaminski captures the bigness of a tornado or a spectacular big-scale western as well as the more intimate moments that make this film so special.

Also helping with the elaborateness of the film as well as the quiet moments is legendary composer John Williams. The piano pieces in the film were selected by Spielberg himself and recorded for the soundtrack by Joanne Pearce Martin, principal pianist of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, which Williams conducted.

Rounding out the cast is Seth Rogen (Steve Jobs, The Disaster Artist) as family friend Bennie Loewy, Burt’s best friend and honorary “Uncle” to the Fabelman kids, and Academy Award nominee Judd Hirsch(Uncut Gems, Ordinary People) as Sammy’s mesmerizing great uncle, Boris.

The ensemble cast also includes Oscar nominee Jeannie Berlin (The Heartbreak KidInherent Vice) as Sammy’s paternal grandmother, Hadassah Fabelman; Julia Butters (Once Upon a Time in Hollywood13 Hours) as Sammy’s sister Reggie; Robin Bartlett (MoonstruckLean on Me) as Sammy’s maternal grandmother Tina Schildkraut and Keeley Karsten (HuntersEvil Lives Here) as Sammy’s sister Natalie.

A deeply personal portrait of a 20th century American childhood, Spielberg’s The Fabelmans is a cinematic memory of the forces, and family, that shaped the filmmaker’s life and career. It’s truly a universal coming-of-age story about an isolated young man’s pursuit of his dreams, the film is an exploration of love, artistic ambition, sacrifice and the moments of discovery that allow us to see the truth about ourselves, and our parents, with clarity and compassion.

Bottom Line: The Fabelmans is a REEL SEE. Possibly the best film of the year.


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Colin Costello is the West Coast Editor of Reel 360. Contact him 

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