‘I’ ON CULTURE
Steven Spielberg is perhaps the best known film director in this country. Who hasn’t thrilled to Jaws, E.T., Raiders of the Lost Ark, Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan and so many more? His remarkable career spans over 40 years. Now he has created, with longtime writing partner Tony Kushner, a semi-biographical movie about his childhood, The Fabelmans. It proves a fascinating, if occasionally shocking, look at the impact of a dysfunctional family on a young filmmaker.
In 1952, young Sammy Fabelman (Mateo Zoryan) and his parents, Burt (Paul Dano) and Mitzi (Michelle Williams) see Cecil B. DeMille’s The Greatest Show On Earth. It’s Sammy’s first movie, and it seems an ideal way to start a boy on films. However, Sammy is haunted by the scene of the big train crash, which begins his fascination with how things like that work as a way to control chaos, quite possibly the chaos of his family life. As Sammy grows up (now played by Gabriel LaBelle), he continues to make films, usually focusing on his sisters and friends. His father is very practical, moving his family several times for better jobs. Eventually settling in California, Sammy has to deal with life, love and some anti-Semitic bullying. But the greatest impact is dealing with his parents’ starkly different views of life.
His father is down to earth and sees Sammy’s focus on making films as a hobby, not as anything that could lead to a career. His mother is a free spirit, caught in a marriage with a man with an opposite view of how life should be lived. She encourages Sammy. In a brilliant sequence, however, Sammy accidentally films Mitzi being somewhat intimate with Benny (Seth Rogan), a family friend.
The film is sometimes heartbreaking. All the family members are nice; no real villains there. But I felt a visceral pang watching two people who have feelings for each other, who love their children, and even the whole idea of family, but who are totally mismatched. A major reason for that is the superb cast. LaBelle is really good as the central character, showing amazing depth in his portrayal of a somewhat obsessed teen in the middle of disaster. He handles his scenes so well that he seems impossibly young to be able to do it. Rogan, who often goes overboard in his parts, holds back enough and manages to make Benny a decent guy. Judd Hirsch as Uncle Boris steals every scene he is in.
But Dano and Williams are both brilliant. Dano has the more difficult part, a victim primarily because of his flaws. He wants the best for everyone, but then frustrates everyone around him through his stubbornness to get his own way. It is a sensitive performance, delicately avoiding being the bad guy while clearly showing why the marriage is doomed. But Williams is a force of nature. She is a wild bird caught in a not very gilded cage, desperate for a way out, even though, in the long run, it will damage everyone she loves at least somewhat. Williams might well win another Oscar out of this part. She manages to dominate the screen, even when quietly speaking. And she is tragic.
This is a mosaic of wonderful scenes. Watching Sammy create his teen films also demonstrate connections to Spielberg’s work. That adds a bit to the fun. There is a fantastic scene watching Mitzi dancing between car headlights that is magical, reminding me of some of the director’s special work over the decades. In addition to the strong performances, the visuals are also part of what makes The Fabelmans so spellbinding, specifically watching Sammy direct, knowing his DIY films are recreations of Spielberg’s early works. They’re fun and charming to watch.
This is not only a tribute to Spielberg’s own family but a really good family drama. Is it one of Spielberg’s greats? No, it is a quiet, wonderfully well done drama that is worth seeing.