Opening in theaters in limited release on November 11 (ahead of the wider screen count around Thanksgiving), ‘The Fablemans’ marks Steven Spielberg’s most autobiographical film to date. And it’s a master class in extracting emotion from the tiniest moments while also serving as a strength of cinema.
The director has never been shy about instilling himself, especially his youthful inspiration, into his films. ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’, for example, is him and George Lucas pouring their obsession with classic series into a new adventure series.
Other films, such as ‘ET’ channeled the trauma of divorce, while ‘Schindler’s List’ and ‘Munich’ saw him interrogating aspects of his Jewish background.
But none of them come quite as close to the filmmaker’s actual backstory as ‘The Fablemans’, which saw Spielberg make the rare breakthrough of also co-writing the script with regular collaborator Tony Kushner.
Inspired by Spielberg’s childhood and young adulthood in Arizona, the film originally begins in New Jersey, where young Sammy Fabelman (with Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord playing him at age seven before Gabriel LaBelle took over from his troubled teens) has his eye. open and slightly enthralled by ‘The Greatest Show on Earth’ in 1952.
Although he too was terrified by the experience, it left an imprint on his soul and he became fascinated with recreating the train wreck from the film. It’s a passion indulged by his mother Mitzi (Michelle Williams), a pianist who put her own dreams on hold to support her husband (Paul Dano’s Burt) and who realizes that her son has a giant creative style that mirrors hers.
Burt, meanwhile, a successful and genius computer engineer, sees his son’s cinematic focus as a hobby to be put aside alongside other childhood concerns while Sammy grows up. And the clash between art and science is one that escalates, especially when Burt moves his family to Arizona so he can take a big new job.
Uprooted and at a new school, Sammy goes through some familiar life moments – he falls for a girl, is a nerd who gets bullied by jocks and starts figuring out who he should be. His love of filmmaking only grew, and in this remake of some of Spielberg’s own youthful experiments, the film truly comes to life. Showcasing both process and outcome, home movies boast more impressive filmmaking than some of the blockbusters hitting theaters this summer.
Not that the family drama is downplayed. Far from it; with established actors like Williams, Dano and Seth Rogen surrounded by a support group of mostly young newcomers, the Fabelmans are an interesting brood.
Burt is quiet and logical, while Mitzi is wild and dramatic, passionate and passionate, but also haunted by addiction problems and depression. It could all be considered cliche, but Spielberg and his cast dig into real feelings swirling around.
And despite the surface happiness of the household, this family has a deeper problem – Mitzi is in love with Burt’s best friend, Bennie, who serves as the children’s de facto uncle. She lobbies for him to move with them to Arizona, but it’s Sammy’s home movies that finally reveal the truth.
His camera skills also come into play towards the end of the film, where Sammy is assigned to record his high school “gutter day” at the beach, which once again brings him into contact with his main antagonist, Logan (Sam Rechner), an athlete who is viciously torturing young and confused Sammy – and therefore upset – when Sammy tops her in a sewer day movie showing at their senior prom.
After the clash, Logan pulled away, and Spielberg offered perhaps the toughest wink for this being his story, as Sammy offered that he couldn’t film for the last laugh. That’s what Spielberg has done.
There are plenty of laughs to be found in ‘The Fablemans’, but the director isn’t afraid to delve deeply into trauma either. While some might use a film like this to highlight themselves and their family, Spielberg instead focuses on the pain that surrounds the magic.
Dano and Williams are, of course, excellent, the latter providing the most compelling roles while the former does much of the trick with a logical father figure whose influence continues to resonate through his son’s career.
LaBelle, our main focus, is also impressive, carrying the weight of this complex character ably, no easy task when you bring to life the director’s version guiding your performance. You can only imagine the stress he must have been under, even with a good-natured person like Spielberg.
His Sammy however is a watchable protagonist, and you will experience the ups and downs in his life right beside him.
Rogen, meanwhile, in a smaller role as Benny, still delivers a hilarious and emotional role that’s quite a far cry from his more mundane work.
And speaking of a smaller role, a cameo by Judd Hirsch as Sammy’s estranged great-uncle, Boris appears in roughly two scenes but dominates every moment he has on screen with his magnetic, cranky energy. “Family, art, life – it will tear you in half,” Boris, who claims to have his own film experience, told Sam. “It will rip your heart out and make you lonely.”
‘The Fablemans’ may not thrill you too much, but it sure does. And it’s infused with a true love of cinema in a way another upcoming release – Sam Mendes’ ‘Empire of Light’ – never quite reached.
Steven Spielberg has (largely) revealed his life in a way many in Hollywood dare not, and while the result doesn’t boast landing a giant dinosaur or alien spaceship (well, except on a slightly cheaper scale), it’s certainly one of a kind. the best.
‘The Fablemans received 4 out of 5 stars.
“Catch every moment.”
A coming-of-age story about a young man’s discovery of the secrets of a broken family and an exploration of the power of film to help us see the truth about each … Read the Plot