HOLLYWOOD—Steven Spielberg in my opinion is one of the greatest directors and filmmakers of all time. I’ve seen almost every film this man has made during my lifetime and I still think there is plenty more this man has to craft. His passion for filmmaking just explodes on the big screen and you can see that from works like “Jaws,” to “ET” to “The Color Purple” to “War of the Worlds” to “Lincoln.” This director dabbles in any and almost all genres and it is great to see him continue to evolve and his latest work might be his most personal.
I’m referring to “The Fabelmans” which is loosely based on Spielberg’s upbringing and family life before he broke out in the cinematic arena. Look this movie may not be everyone’s cup of tea. It’s a drama, it has a slow burn. It is not as in your face as most dramas tend to be, but it’s a personal tale and if you allow yourself to get engulfed it is worth every moment, especially to those of us who are aspiring filmmakers.
The movie is centered on Samuel Fabelman, who is portrayed with poise, charisma and a quiet rage by Gabriel LaBelle. If you don’t know who LaBelle is check out the series “American Gigolo” that recently wrapped its first season on Showtime. LaBelle takes on the role of Sammy for a vast majority of the movie after the family moves from New Jersey to Phoenix, Arizona. You might ask why the Fabelmans continue to move, it is a direct result of the patriarch of the family, Burt (Paul Dano).
Burt is a tech genius who is constantly evolving at his place of business, and as a result put his family in a situation where they have to pick up their life and move. The family is in a bit of disarray, particularly Mitzi (Michelle Williams), as Sammy’s mother. Williams is stellar in a performance that is so layered and meaty. Mitzi believes in her son’s passion to be a filmmaker, she is the one who encourages him and helps him capture what he first witnesses on the big screen that changes this little boy’s life and trajectory as a result.
However, Mitzi is not perfect; she is a bit out there, even though she is a classically trained pianist. It is hinted in the movie that Mitzi may suffer from mental illness and it’s something Burt attempts to keep under wraps, hoping not to scare Sammy and his siblings in the process, which become stars in many of Sammy’s short flicks he makes at home. Sammy’s ability to study each frame and capture each moment whenever he films something helps him uncover something that fractures his family.
It causes major tension between Sammy, his mother and his Uncle Benny (Seth Rogen). That secret leads to the family making another move this time to California, where Sammy has a tough time in high school as he’s bullied for being less athletic than his peers and for being Jewish.
Spielberg does two things with “The Fabelmans:” highlighting how cinema and family can bond in a way never experienced. The dynamics of a family fracturing is tenuous and heartbreaking to watch because as a spectator you can see the signs; you feel the tension and anyone who has ever been a child of divorce you understand that fracture even more. Williams portrays Mitzi with such a delicacy that anytime she is not on the screen you want her to come back and LaBelle brings an effervescent energy to Sammy that is hard to take your eyes away from the movie screen.
The audience also gets to see this love/hate dichotomy between Mitzi, Burt and Sammy. Mitzi is her son’s champion who sees his vision and encourages him to chase after his dreams, while Burt sees it as a hobby and chastises his son for not taking his future more seriously. As an aspiring filmmaker, it is so fun to witness this meta-memoir on Spielberg’s life and how he continued to pursue his dreams even though he got knocked down more times than one can count.
“The Fabelmans” is a tale of inspiration, hope, and courage and that all families have drama, some are better at hiding their secrets than others, but at the end of the day you cannot chose your family; love them for who they are flaws and all.