Review: 'The Fabelmans' celebrates all things cinema, through the lens of a movie-loving icon
The master craftsman - the man, the myth, the legend - Steven Spielberg, gets personal with his latest coming-of-age drama, "The Fabelmans."
It's not necessarily a movie about movies, but it is a movie about how movies can affect us...how they can act as an escape, and how movies can heal and even save lives along the way.
In addition to having one of the best ensemble casts of 2022, "The Fabelmans" is a beautiful, deeply moving piece of cinema...in other words, it's just another day at the office for Steven Spielberg, as he serves up another gem in what has become an untouchable and unparalleled body of work for the 75-year-old filmmaker.
Loosely based on Spielberg's real life, he has plucked the charismatic newcomer, Gabriel LaBelle to play a teenage version of himself, Sammy Fabelman (in younger flashbacks, Sammy is portrayed by Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord). His parents Burt (Paul Dano) and Mitzi (Michelle Williams) take Sammy to the movie theater where he sees "The Greatest Show on Earth." It literally changes his life, inspiring his imagination and equally terrifying him.
His "hobby" grows to be not only an obsession, but a way for Sammy to cope with the hardships of life. His father is a successful scientist on the brink of developing a game-changing bit of technology, but his eccentric mother is full of art and life. She encourages Sammy and nurtures his passion, and he grows to impress his friends (and even some of his enemies) with his unique visual storytelling abilities.
The under-current here is that the greatest of filmmakers need proper chemistry...and who is better suited than Sammy to match artistry with scientific, technical wizardry? Yes his mom pushes him, but there's creativity given to him from his father as well...dad's pragmatism is what allows Sammy to ground his dreams in some kind of reality.
Sammy's love of movies though, is sort of in the background. At the forefront is what you might call a traditional trajectory of a coming-of-age story. Sammy and his sisters are navigating teenage life, love and bullies. He has his first brush with death when his grandma passes away, and his first encounters with antisemitism when his family is uprooted and moved away to a new environment in California.
Michelle Williams gives an emotional, devoted performance but Paul Dano is just as good in a reserved, inward sort of way. I was most impressed though, with the supporting cast of characters, each of which seem to enter the story crackling with energy, and each injecting strong and memorable personalities into the fold. Take for example Sammy's Great Uncle (played by Judd Hirsch) who steals the screen if only for a short while. Chloe East is a breakout sensation as Sammy's Jesus-loving love interest. Spielberg puts the cherry on top with one of my favorite scenes of the year, as iconic director David Lynch portrays iconic director John Ford, as Sammy comes face-to-face with his real-life hero...it's an encounter that Sammy - and Spielberg - clearly have never forgotten, and it's too on-point to be untrue.
Even douchey jock Logan (Sam Rechner) commands his scenes, which culminates in a powerful and deeply-felt scene as Logan confronts Sammy after one of Sammy's films is played at the high school prom. After tormenting Sammy all year, Sammy's "Ditch Day" film actually made Logan look great. Logan is befuddled...he can't understand why Sammy would have done that. He's equally upset because that film has created a version of himself that he can't possibly live up to.
It's the humility in that lesson that is at the heart of "The Fabelmans." Film, for Sammy and for many of us, can be fun (like his make-shift Western film), it can be a form of flattery (like when he tries to recreate the train scene from "The Greatest Show on Earth") and it can even reveal ugly, hidden truths about real life (like what he discovers while cutting together a family camping video). But it also has the power to make its subject look as heroic or as villainous as the director wants.
With that in mind, Spielberg does a masterful job of making his parents, and ultimately himself, look like real people...complete with flaws, facets and loads of potential. Being at the helm, he could have shaped "The Fabelmans" however he liked, and it could have turned out like the scene that started it all: A massive trainwreck.
Instead, it's an endearing film for anyone with a heartbeat, or who shares even a fraction of Sammy's love for not only movies, but the power and influence that these moving pictures possess.
Run Time: 2 hours 31 minutes.
Starring: Gabriel LaBelle, Michelle Williams, Paul Dano, Seth Rogen, Keeley Karsten, Julia Butters, Chloe East, Sam Rechner, Oakes Fegley, Isabella Kusman.
Written by Steven Spielberg & Tony Kushner.
Directed by Steven Spielberg ("West Side Story," "Ready Player One," "The Post," "Lincoln," "War Horse," "Munich," "Catch Me If You Can," "Minority Report," "Saving Private Ryan," "Schindler's List," "Jurassic Park," "The Color Purple," "Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark," "Jaws").
"The Fabelmans" is in theaters on Wednesday, November 23rd, 2022.
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