Spielberg combines drama and discovery in this new coming-of-age blockbuster.
Revisiting his childhood, Steven Spielberg’s self-adaptation The Fabelmans is the latest film he has directed, written, and produced alongside Tony Kushner. They have also worked together on Munich (2005), Lincoln (2012) and West Side Story (2021). It is a coming-of-age that explores the act of discovering oneself whilst navigating obstacles outside of one’s control. Spielberg was encouraged by Kushner to make the film after the latter learned of his childhood.
Many of the characters are based on real-life people who were a major influence in Spielberg’s life. Gabriel LaBelle takes the stage as Sammy Fabelman, a young boy based after Spielberg. Michelle Williams (Mitzi Schildkraut-Fabelman,) and Paul Dano (Burt Fabalman) also portray fictionalised versions of Spielberg’s parents in the film. Gabriel gives a stellar performance as a young boy finding his way forward through filming. Michelle and Paul also complement the film with their roles, their characters based on Spielberg’s parents Leah and Arnold.
Michelle Williams, in particular, stands out, leading some of the movie’s most impactful scenes with her performance. Her presence brings with it an emotional weight that ties in with some of the most prevalent themes in the film.
It all starts for young Sammy Fabelman when his parents take him to see The Greatest Show on Earth. Having never seen a film before, Sammy is blown away by the experience. One scene, in particular, involving a train hitting a car resonates with him to the point that it is all he can think about. Gifted a model train, he sets up a collision between it and a toy car. He records the crash using his father’s camera.
Once Sammy starts, he finds himself unable to stop. As time goes on, his filmmaking becomes more advanced. He goes from shooting his sisters wrapped up as mummies to creating a cowboy project utilises special effects. It becomes the sole focus in his life.
How Sammy’s interests intermix with his family becomes a constant theme in his life. His father Burt does not take what his son does seriously and views it as a hobby. He remains insistent in his belief that filmmaking is something that cannot be properly applied to the real world. On the other hand, Sammy’s mother, Mitzi, instantly recognises what he is trying to do and is proud of his talent. Being a skilled pianist who gave up her passion, she can relate to Sammy more regarding what he is pursuing.
Mitzi’s uncle Boris (Boris Podgorny), a filmmaker and former lion tamer, comes to visit. He gives some stern advice to Sammy concerning art and family. Both parts of his life will always be at odds, and people like them will always choose the former over the latter. Boris says, “we are junkies and art is our drug”, referring to how his work has estranged him from their family.
As time passes, Sammy slowly becomes more aware of the growing friction in his life. Mitzi and Burt’s marriage becomes strained due to Mitzi finding more comfort in the arms of the family friend Bennie (Seth Rogan). Through the eyes of his lens, this friction becomes apparent to Sammy, resulting in an argument that leaves him hurt and marked. The Fabelmans have to relocate twice due to Burt’s work, whose focus on his job leaves him unaware of how unhappy it is making everyone.
The Fabelman family’s latest relocation only increases the adversity experienced. Sammy is bullied at his new school, facing ridicule and violence from his peers. His mother becomes increasingly depressed as a result of leaving Bennie behind. Burt’s discovery of the affair ultimately ends in the couple’s divorce, much to the family’s sadness. Sammy’s hardships are enough to stop him from using a new film camera.
Sammy’s life turns around for him when his new girlfriend (Chloe East) convinces him to film the school’s Ditch Day. On prom night, the film receives a favourable response from the audience. After the event, Mitzi, who is now together with Bennie, urges Sammy not to give up finding happiness through his dream.
The film reaches the final act when Sammy receives a response to an application from CBS. Meeting with John Ford (David Lynch), who offers him some pointers, Sammy’s passion is renewed. Walking away, the camera angle on Sammy frames the horizon to the far bottom, as per Ford’s advice.
The Fabelmans is an exquisite film that bears all the markings of Steven Spielberg’s artistic direction. It may not be his highest-grossing piece nor his flashiest, but it carries itself well. Masterfully put together by Spielberg, it illuminates the hardships endured in the name of self-discovery. It also shines a light on the good things still to come from this burgeoning filmmaker.
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