The films of today have lost their sense of wonder. In the digital age, a large portion of modern filmmakers lack the skill to use the lessons taught by the great directors of the past. Even fewer know how to infuse their work with a soul. It takes a master like Steven Spielberg to craft a picture as deeply moving and gloriously cinematic as “The Fabelmans”.
Based on the experiences of his youth, Spielberg brings his magic to the story of Sammy Fabelman, a Jewish boy whose eyes are opened to the magic of the movies as a kid growing up in post-WWII New Jersey.
It begins when his parents Burt and Mitzi (Paul Dano and Michelle Williams) take him to his first movie. The film playing is Cecil B. De Mille’s “The Greatest Show on Earth”.
As young Sammy (played by Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord as a child) witnesses the big screen train crash, he is terrified. The moment stays with him and, to purge his fear, he wants to recreate the wreck with a miniature train set that his father gets him for Hanukkah.
With his mother’s encouragement and his father’s movie camera, Sammy not only purges the bad dreams left over from the experience, he lights a fire inside him, one that will lead him to pursue his dream of being a filmmaker and shape how he sees the world.
Sammy begins to film movies around the house and neighborhood, populating the casts with family and friends. With his sisters he makes a mummy movie (and uses up all the toilet paper in the house), a Western thanks to his viewing of John Ford’s “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance”, and once he becomes a teenager (marvelously played by Gabriel LaBelle), a WWII epic featuring clever “explosive” FX, blood splatter, and an emotional finale that moves everyone.
As his home life shapes this young man and films sharpen his view of the world, Sammy’s vision and director’s eye become incredibly astute. Each person who sees his movies (and Sammy himself) will come to realize how even the most beautiful image can hold something painful, and out of pain there can rise beauty.
Sammy’s childhood is full of all the trials tribulations of growing up, and his home life was sometimes tough. Their family dynamic is an uneven balance of the hard working engineer and the artistic piano virtuoso.
Dad Burt (who is not the most encouraging regarding his son’s dreams) moves the family to Phoenix and eventually to California due to his job, causing much instability that will lead to heartbreaking truths.
The film shows us the roots of the life lessons that shaped Steven Spielberg, and we can trace the link to many of the children in his films. In “E.T. The Extraterrestrial”, Elliott and his siblings lived with their divorced mom and in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”, Roy Neary’s family falls apart until his wife eventually leaves with their three kids.
The theme of “children of divorce” is recurring in many of his works, but Spielberg has never brought it to fruition so fully and so deeply personal as he does with “The Fabelmans”.
As Mitzi, Michelle Williams, gives a performance of astonishing intensity. Sammy’s mother gave up a career as a concert pianist to raise her children while her husband worked.
Williams gives everything as Mitzi. Her performance is raw and luminous, but never manufactured. The actress is impossibly perfect, transcending film acting and becoming someone almost ethereal.
Paul Dano’s Burt is a complicated man who can’t seem to understand why he fails to connect on deeper levels with his wife and family. At times. Burt has apparently cast himself as the outsider. The kids play harder and laugh more with Mom. Mitzi, while continually showing her love and admiration for her husband, seems more free around his best friend Bennie (a great Seth Rogen).
Dano is quietly perfect, keeping his character’s pain and heartbreak just under the surface. We see Burt is hurting, but this man loves his family and wants to keep it while.
The great Judd Hirsch enters the middle of the film for a few scenes and completely steals every second.
Hirsch expertly inhabits the skin of Mitzi’s Uncle Boris, who spins tales of his life as a lion tamer for the circus. His scene with Sammy (where Boris gives a fiery speech about embracing artistic passion despite everything and everyone) is absolutely captivating. Judd Hirsch has long been a fine actor. As Uncle Boris, he reaches some sort of mad brilliance, using little screen time to give the performance of his career.
While there is much drama within Spielberg’s picture, the film is anything but a downer. Watching Sammy discover his talents and focus in his dreams is exhilarating. To see the faces of so many (friends and family) bathed in the light from the screen showing Sammy’s films is a thing of beauty.
Longtime colleague Janusz Kaminski’s camera IS Sammy, capturing striking emotions through his compositions, as the young man sees the world through eyes of a director.
Kaminski’s shots are stunningly gorgeous, from sunlit childhood trips to a tornado that represents much more than immediate danger, to a touching and magical moment where a radiant Mitzi does a beautifully sad dance in front of car headlights.
John Williams returns (his 29th collaboration with Spielberg) with perhaps his most understated score for the filmmaker. The legendary composer’s work here is quite beautiful, as he uses soft strings, guitar, and beautiful piano pieces peppered with the soft chimes of a xylophone to bring balance to the film’s sense of childlike wonder and realistic human emotions.
While the director’s pictures always have heart, it is Spielberg’s own that is laid bare for this one and in doing so, he achieves one of his finest masterpieces. With a big canvas, the film is a soulful ode to the connection of family, the wide-eyed privilege of youth, and a deeply moving tribute to the power of images.
During one heartfelt moment, Mitzi says to Sammy, “Movies are dreams that you never forget.”
Williams’ line is the essence of this beautiful work and of the director’s entire career.
I shall never forget Steven Spielberg’s “The Fabelmans”, a film alive with dreams and wonder.
Written by Steven Spielberg & Tony Kushner
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Starring Michelle Williams, Paul Dano, Gabriel LaBelle, Judd Hirsch, Seth Rogan, Jeannie Berlin, Robin Bartlett, Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord
PG-13, 151 Minutes, Amblin Entertainment/Universal Pictures