Film Review: The Fabelmans
Director: Steven Spielberg
In Theaters: 11.23
In the ’80s, Raiders of the Lost Ark and E.T. made movies my whole world, and 1993 marked the last, major moviegoing experience of my youth with Jurassic Park and the first of my adulthood with Schindler’s List. As such, The Fabelmans, Steven Spielberg’s intimate self-portrait, is the film that I’ve been waiting to see for most of my life.
In the early 1950’s, Burt and Mitzi Fabelman (Paul Dano and Michelle Williams, respectively) take their young son, Sammy (Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord), to see his first motion picture on the big screen, The Greatest Show on Earth. Sammy is entranced, especially by the spectacular train crash sequence. He becomes obsessed with reliving the movie magic and takes to crashing his electric trains together, much to his father’s disapproval. Mitzi comes up with a compromise: Crash them just one more time and capture it on film. This moment begins Sammy’s lifelong odyssey of capturing images of life, and images larger than life, on celluloid.
As Sammy grows older (now played by the extraordinary Gabriel LaBelle, iZombie), he buries himself further in his growing obsession, pulling everyone around him into his filmmaking endeavors. Sammy is so buried in his pursuits that as his family relocates cities as Burt’s career takes him from one big job opportunity to the next, with Burt and Mitzi’s best friend Benny (Seth Rogen) in tow, Sammy is oblivious of the unhappiness hanging over the rest of the family. Sammy’s artistic preoccupations cause the growing strain in the relationship between his parents to go by unnoticed until it finally crashes into him like one of his speeding trains.
The Fabelmans is a deeply personal film for Spielberg, yet its sincerity sidesteps self indulgence. Spielberg and Tony Kushner have crafted a screenplay that would stand as one of the year’s best even if it were pure fiction. While Sammy’s unquenchable thirst to make movies is an essential, driving force behind The Fabelmans, to call the film merely the latest entry in the newly popular “love letter to the cinema” genre would be to tell it short. Where films like Apollo 10 ½ and Empire of Light fumble to find any kind of workable story structure and ultimately feel like a first draft, The Fabelmans is an impeccably crafted family drama with fully realized characters, complex, relatable relationships and sensational dialogue.
Spielberg paints a sometimes unflattering portrait of his parents tempered with love, sympathy and understanding for the struggles they endured. The sequences of Sammy making his ambitious films are both hilarious and inspiring, as his ingenuity and determination know no bounds. Sammy goes from electric trains to pulling everyone in the family and beyond into creating elaborate western gunfights, World War II battles and monster movies. It’s an incredible treat for anyone who ever tried their hand at making movies in their youth, and Sammy’s audacious imagination and endless drive are likely to connect with most audiences.
Michelle Williams gives a touching, fearless and unforgettable performance as Mitzi, burying herself in the role of a flawed, sometimes selfish woman who is also overflowing with an uncontainable sense of love, art and beauty deep inside her. Her need to live life to its fullest potential is so strong that it’s perhaps unattainable. Anyone who has seriously followed Spielberg’s filmography knows the importance of the maternal figure, and it all goes back to Mitzi, the embodiment of Spielberg’s real mother, Leah.
Dano portrays the more difficult character as the more reserved and occasionally uptight Burt. His genius and tunnel vision hide a pained soul, and his inability to adequately focus or express his love do not equate an absence of it. Judd Hirsch shines in a brief appearance as Uncle Boris, a relative whose stories of a life in the entertainment industry have a profound effect on Sammy, and Rogen is endlessly likable as the tag-along honorary uncle to Sammy and his three sisters. At the heart of it all is Labelle in what should be a star-making performance that is astonishingly natural, wonderfully sensitive and beautifully real.
There’s so much to love about The Fabelmans that can’t be recognized in one review. It was such an overwhelming experience for me that I often lost track of whether I was watching Spielberg’s life story or my own, and I feel such a sense of inadequacy in my ability to capture what it meant to me that I found myself lying awake all night pondering how I could even write this review. In an age when the memoir movie is becoming prolific while seldom rises above mediocrity, master storyteller Spielberg soars to his most astonishing and emotional height since Schindler’s List by baring his soul with a story as dramatic as the singular imagination that was shaped by it, full of visions of light and love. –Patrick Gibbs