Saturday, December 24, 2022

The Fabelmans: Movie Review

Profoundly moving, self-reflective, intricate work of art.
This is a filmmaker’s movie, and a cinephile’s movie and an everybody’s movie. The Fabelmans is not just Steven Spielberg’s most personal movie, but also his best movie. Arguably one of the world’s greatest filmmakers has just delivered his greatest work of art. It’s the level of self-reflection and detail in each moment of his 1950s-1960s adolescence that leads to a tale about the power of art in the face of hatred reflecting our modern world.   2022

Directed by: Steven Spielberg

Screenplay by: Steven Spielberg, Tony Kushner

Starring: Gabriel LaBelle, Michelle Williams, Paul Dano, Seth Rogen

Spielberg has always liked blurring the lines between fiction and reality. So even when he tells us that this is about his youth and family relations, this appears to be both an accurate but abstract telling of his life and experiences. The literal truth hardly matters because it’s easy to see the greater meaning of all of these early moments. He starts by changing his name. This is about Sammy Fabelman. A Jewish name that by no accident sounds exactly like fable. He’s a guy who has hid behind a camera his entire life and he’s not about to change that now.

The beginning of Sammy’s story is in New Jersey when the family goes to see The Greatest Show on Earth. Instead of the famous train wreck terrorizing young Sammy, he’s memorized. His engineer father misunderstands his fascination and buys him a train set, eventually his artistic mother realizes Sammy is crashing his trains on purpose to try and capture it on camera. Spielberg’s love of movies started with the gruesome. His home movies all include his little sisters covered in fake blood or mummies coming to life. Spielberg doesn’t comment on what drew him to the macabre, the commentary comes later when Sammy becomes a teenager and is more aware of the world around him.

The family moves to Arizona and Sammy’s large group of friends are aware of him being Jewish, but it’s not really an issue. Young boys like playing war and the rest of the world doesn’t necessarily impact him yet. He sees The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance by John Ford and Sammy is instantly drawn to recreating war movies. He’s creating, he’s directing, he’s editing, he’s premiering complete movies to his family and friends as a young teenager. Life is grand for awhile until his family and movies collide.

The way Spielberg is telling us how he viewed the world through his camera lens is astonishingly recreated here. While there are a ton of subtle moments about that throughout the movie, the key scene is Sammy videotaping a family camping trip and later when editing it views the love affair his mother was having out in the open that nobody but Sammy’s camera noticed.

The main family theme that The Fabelmans explore is the push and pull to each parent. His mother (Michelle Williams) is his favorite. She’s the artistic one, a singer, who encourages his filmmaking aspirations from the first moment they appeared. His father (Paul Dano), the scientist, is fine with movies as a hobby as long as it doesn’t get too costly. His father never seems to understand him, and his father’s the one who made the family move away from his friends in Arizona to the anti-Semites in California. But his mother is also the one who had an affair and sparked the dissolution of his parents’ marriage.

There are some subtle nods to some of Spielberg’s most important works. My favourite is the references to Jaws. Teenager Sammy is detailing all the ways water can kill you to his sisters while he prepares for his lifeguarding test but then his mother gets violently angry. Does young Sammy become a Lifeguard? We can infer that he does not. He also puts his camera under his bed because it’s the camera that captured his mother’s affair, and it’s that affair that drove the wedge between mother and son. His dreams of filmmaking temporarily dead along with his lifeguarding aspirations. More than a decade later, Jaws becomes his response to that anger.

Meanwhile, Sammy has moved to California and is the most significant part of the movie. In California, Sammy is up against anti-Semite bullies. Kids who want to beat him up and taunt him with slurs all because of his name and because he looks different than they do (they’re all blonde, he’s not). A group of girls who love Jesus decide Sammy is their pet project. Sammy’s puppy love is with a girl who is friends with the anti-Semite bullies and spends her time trying to convert Sammy to Christianity. The ties from the anti-Semitism in 1960s California to the rise of anti-Semitism in 2022 is clear and Spielberg’s response to how to counteract that hate is genius, so I won’t spoil that for you.

The Fabelmans is a profoundly moving, very self-reflective, intricate work of art that connects Spielberg’s adolescence to the art of filmmaking and its importance to today’s world in combating hatred in all its prejudiced forms.

One of the Best of 2022