There are many ways to look at movies, but in the end it sort of boils down to two very different angles. The technicalities of filmmaking and then the magic behind it. If you are lucky enough you will be able to see film at least one of these ways, and if you are truly fortunate you can see it through both of them. Steven Spielberg with a film career that has spanned a longer than his filmography is one of those fortunate ones. A man built on the love and understanding of what makes a movie work and how it finds a way to grab a hold of all of us. Spielberg himself has never been shy from putting his own personal and family experiences in his films even if it is slightly covered up by fantastical imagery and storytelling. It is impossible to see Saving Private Ryan and not see it as a dedication to Spielberg’s father and grandfather, as well as to watch E.T and not acknowledge Spielberg’s therapy session in dealing with his parents’ separation. For a filmmaker who is sometimes criticized for being a little too sentimental the man is still trying to figure out personal issues. Thus may be the reason for his most personal film yet, a fairy tale examination of his family, movie magic and lasting memories that we don’t always realize stay with us. THE FABELMANS is not just Spielberg’s way of bringing us into his home it is also his way of trying to reconnect with everything that has made him the exquisite filmmaker he continues to be. Oh and not to mention it is also one of the best films you will see this year.
Young Sammy Fabelman (Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord) is both afraid and curious of the movies. His father Burt (Paul Dano) explains to him the science behind the projector and his mother Mitzi (Michelle Williams) lets him know that movies are also magic. With the best of both worlds Sammy enters into the theater to be bewildered by Cecile B. DeMille’s The Greatest Show On Earth. In an extensive prologue (the film written by Spielberg and Tony Kushner greatly takes its time) Sammy spends his days trying to figure out how DeMille shot the infamous car on the railroad track scene. His amazement only grows deeper when he gets his own set of trains and is able to use the family camera. A camera that belongs to a family that also consists of three sisters: Reggie (Julia Butters), Natalie (Keeley Karsten), and Lisa (Sophia Kopera), and an Uncle, who is really just his dad’s best friend, Benny (Seth Rogen). Not to mention an onslaught of family members who come and go into his New Jersey suburban home. The film is very much a tribute not just to his family, but Jewish families that find themselves living in non-Jewish communities. Their house is the easiest to recognize on the block since it is the only one without Christmas lights.
Even without lights his family creates their own magic. Mitzi is a storyteller, a magician, a dancer an all around artist. Michelle Williams is mesmerizing as Mitzi a character that is larger than life and impossible to fully understand. Spielberg uses Williams as a way to not just honor his mother but display some of his best filmmaking techniques to bring to life his greatest audience member. A now teenage Sammy (Gabriel Labelle in his first major role and owning his moment) goes on a family camping trip that quickly turns into a filming opportunity when his mother dances in the moonlight in a nightgown that has her husband and Benny amazed and her daughters disgusted. It is one of the film’s most stunning moments that not only displays the talent that Spielberg/Sammy already possessed but how for all the hard work and heartache his life was still a fairy tale and his mother a woodland creature. Williams who has had a career playing both magical and broken women finds a perfect balance of a free spirit who loves her family but doesn’t always know how to contain all that comes with family life.
While the film hits many of the memorable moments that happen in a young man’s life (first girlfriends, friendships, bullying and much more) Spielberg never rushes through any of them. The film even takes plenty of time to stop and let new members come in and have their full say. Get ready for a monumental scene stealing moment from Judd Hirsch as Sammy’s Uncle Boris (if we are going to give awards for one scene this is the one). Sammy gains knowledge even from the most peculiar characters, because after all they are the true artists. These lessons continue Sammy’s desire to never stop making films, films that include war movies, camping trips, and eventually a high school beach day. Unlike other director origin story movies (if you will) there isn’t a ton of eye roll and those “hey look this is why he made jaws” moments. Sure it is a total thrill to see Sammy and his friends ride bikes (some with baskets in the front) and it is impossible to see his day at the beach with a high school bully and not think “hmm I wonder if he ever wanted a shark to attack this kid” but it is all done with such honesty and dedication to the film’s techniques that its sentiment is rewarded.
Not all memories can be great though. The film may be one of Spielberg’s best scripts (again with great credit to Tony Kushner) that balances comedy (the movie is quite hysterical) with family tragedy. Tragedy that involves less death and more realization of poorly kept secrets. Spielberg has never shied away from his parent’s separation but to see it play out with Burt’s continuous dedication to his wife and Benny’s sincere apologetic behavior towards Sammy, it all becomes a mark on a child who will never be able to shake it off. This is often overlooked when going through Spielberg’s career, sure we were given some of the most memorable movie moments, but it still came with a big cost; just the way true art does.
THE FABELMANS is clearly the type of movie that loves movies. However it is never self-obsessed in the way many other non-franchise films want you to hate big blockbuster movies. This is coming from the man who invented blockbusters so it would be too hypocritical to spend the time ridiculing. Instead this is a story not just about the love for movies, but the foolishness that also comes with being a part of this craft. If there is any mockery it is mockery of himself, but also realizing that through the ridicule comes power. The ability to make others see themselves on the screen in ways they both want to and also greatly fear. Director is king in Sammy’s eyes, but the throne isn’t always comfortable.
The film may find a crowd cheering way to wrap things up (seriously you won’t believe this ending), but it is only because Sammy finds new ways to make even the worst memories and life changing moments valuable lessons not just for himself but also his craft. Life was his film school and if his Uncle Boris taught him anything it is that all “family, art, life…it will tear you in two.” Now if THE FABELMANS is what comes from being ripped apart I say, maybe somethings never do heal, but it doesn’t mean we can’t find ways to take it all and create magic.
THE FABELMANS WORLD PREMIERED AT THE TORONTO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL. IT WILL BE RELEASED IN THEATERS EVERYWHERE NOVEMBER 23