Do you remember the first moment you fell in love with movies? The moment where everything else around you was meaningless and the only thing that mattered was the images projected on the big screen? For Sammy Fabelman, it is the train crash sequence in 1952’s The Greatest Show on Earth, a movie his parents Burt and Mitzi (Paul Dano, Michelle Williams) have to drag him to because he’s afraid of what he might see. But when the camera pans to Sammy’s face after the crash is shown, you see the wide-eyed, jaw-dropping expression we all feel when we go to the movies. It is from this moment he becomes inspired to recreate this scene at home with nothing more than a model train set and his father’s small camera. “Why does he need to see them crash,” Burt asks Mitzi, not understanding this new obsession of his son. Simply put, it is to feel the cinematic serotonin that inspires someone to make a movie, much less one based on your life the way legendary director Steven Spielberg does with his latest semi-autobiographical coming-of-age drama, The Fablemans.
Sam (played by Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord in this section) is the eldest of four Fabelman children, who live comfortably in Ohio. Their house is always lively, with his grandmothers visiting them constantly, as well as his father’s best friend and co-worker, Uncle Bennie (a miscast, oddly placed Seth Rogen). His father Burt is always working, coming up with new innovative ideas as a computer engineer to move up in his profession. On the other hand, Mitzi is a stay at home parent, who once had dreams of becoming a renowned pianist, but those dreams were cut short once she became a wife and a mother. Within this setup, our young protagonist starts creating home movies, turning his sisters into mummies, or performing a fake surgery, and the filmmaking itch begins.
As joyous as this sounds, it comes to a halt when the family has to move to Arizona when Burt is given a massive job opportunity they couldn’t pass up. This is where we time jump and see Sammy (now played by Gabriel LaBelle) become known for having a camera around his neck. Filming everything he can, you can see the obsession growing for Sammy, as the young Fabelman is going through boxes and boxes of film, making entire westerns and war epics with his best friends and members of his scout regiment, and poking pins in the film to create real life gunshots to make his films feel more cinematic on a nothing budget. Sammy can’t help but see the world through a camera lens, making his dream of being a director a reality one step closer with each shot he produces. But Burt doesn’t see it this way, as he feels this is a hobby that Sammy will lose once he grows up and goes to college. He indulges his son because he loves him, buying him an editing machine and money for film, but he expects this to pass. Mitzi doesn’t see it this way, as she knows as a creative person too within their household, that this is what makes her son happy, makes him curious, and makes him whole.
After the family and Bennie go on an extended camping trip, Mitzi’s mother passes away, sending her into an emotional state that breaks her warm, cheery spirit and folds herself into a ball of despair. In an effort to cheer up his mother with memories of the family trip, Sammy starts meticulously editing the footage, which feels like the audience getting a personal glimpse into the process of how Spielberg became the director he is. Moreover, we see a boy trying to keep this family together through the power of his storytelling and the one thing that could bring joy back into his mother’s life. But as he starts putting the film together, Sammy discovers a shocking truth about his parents that shakes his core, angering the young boy, and forcing him to put his camera away for a long time as a result, blaming them for his loss of innocence and knowing things will never be the same. It is in these moments where not only Sammy, but the entire Fabelman family starts to crumble, and as they move to California, their future as a family is in the balance in this last ditch effort to keep them all together. There are minor quibbles with this section of the film as some of the pacing decisions in how the story wants to break down this family in limbo make it a little too meandering, slowing down the momentum of the first act, and feeling a little jarring when it comes to the perfect third act that concludes this film.
But this is a towering storytelling achievement, covering the events that took place in Spielberg’s adolescence through the perspective of someone who has had time to reflect on every moment that took place. Spielberg’s career has often examined parental dynamics and the lack of the “perfect family.” From Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T the Extra-Terrestrial, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Catch Me If You Can, Lincoln, and more, he has used his storytelling as a form of therapy to find the answers he needed to come up with a way to tell this story. Alongside the exceptional screen and stage writer Tony Kushner, Spielberg makes the most personal film in his filmography to date, one that if he had never made it, would feel as if it was missing from his monumental, influential body of work.
In telling his story, he casts two brilliant actors to portray his parents. Michelle Williams is spellbinding as Mitzi, who, throughout the film, loses herself to depression and slowly sees her heart start to break, trying to keep it all together before she explodes at her children and Burt. Moments of grace (her poetic dance sequence by the campfire) are met with over the top line deliveries in scenes where she is standing on the family piano, and yet they feel completely balanced in this complex character study of a woman battling her mental health issues while raising four children in a decaying marriage. Dano’s performance as Burt is sharp and sincere as a man who is just trying to do the best for his family, even though he is constantly working and missing out on who they really are. His ambition gets in his way, and it takes time for him to connect back fully with the wants and desires of not just Sammy, but the rest of his family, thus having to make a tough decision that will ultimately break his and the audience’s heart.
But Spielberg’s ultimate sign of casting brilliance comes from the discovery of Gabriel LaBelle, who plays the director himself. The young newcomer looks and feels like old clips of the master director when he was first coming up in the business, but more importantly, he is someone we can trust and connect with as we are seeing his story unfold. Sure, we see him go through the normal problems faced by a kid his age in getting get beat up at school by bullies or sharing his first kiss, but these moments are wrapped within enough specificity for both LaBelle and Spielberg that they are moments you believe they have both gone through in their lives off-screen. Much like Spielberg, when LaBelle is holding Sammy’s camera, giving directions, and explaining his intentions in making his projects, we see cinematic bliss. It is a gift that can’t be wasted, something that will tear him apart from his personal and professional connection, as told to him by his great Uncle Boris (an immaculate one sequence performance by Judd Hirsch), and by the end, Sammy is able to find this tricky balance and so is LaBelle in his effortless portrayal of his mighty director.
The Fabelmans is a sentimental tapestry destined to charm any lover of cinema and fan of the man who influenced generations to fall in love with movies much like we saw Sammy at the beginning of the film. In working with all of his long-time collaborators in Kushner, cinematographer Janusz Kamiński, editor Michael Kahn and Sarah Broshar, and the iconic composer John Williams, Spielberg brings his life and life’s work together for a special slice of pure cinema.
Universal Pictures will release The Fabelmans in select theaters on November 11 and wide on November 23.