Film Review: The Fabelmans

Steven Spielberg slipped into our collective consciousness more than fifty years ago. With sweeping imagination and spot-on storytelling, he has, in film after film, outperformed expectations. And good for all of us that The Fabelmans is no exception.

In this, his 33rd theatrical release, he dissects moments from his youth that have informed artistic choices on topics like family, fairness, and core values; ideas that have taken center stage in our contemporary social discourse.

Along with writing partner, Tony Kushner (West Side Story, Angels in America), Spielberg provides immediate access to his family’s big heart and cozy charm. The Fabelmans are a crafty, intellectually-gifted lot, with a penchant for self-expression, and a drive toward lofty goals. A Jewish family, they occupy the only dark house on a street filled with Christmas lights. But the glow of familial bonds at this particular address is enough to illuminate dreams.

It’s important to note that none of the principals involved in the making of the film deny the incontrovertible truth that the Fabelmans are, in fact, the Spielbergs.  

Gabrielle Labelle, (The Predator, Dead Shack), captures the essence of the young director in his portrayal of would-be genius, Sam Fabelman. Innocent, but smart, Sam leads with his heart and is the sole author of his trajectory. But forces within his own family will try to keep his imagination earthbound. His father, Burt, an engineer attempting to fulfill on his own outsized ambitions, casts his son’s preoccupation with film as a frivolous hobby, and pays only patronizing attention to his wife, Mitzi’s, burgeoning career as a solo classical pianist. Deftly played by Paul Dano (The Batman, Twelve Years a Slave), Burt continuously bumps up against the walls of other people’s dreams, often leaving his wife hanging to loose threads of sanity while she works overtime to fill the role of sole accommodator to everyone else’s wishes. Michelle William’s (Verdon/Fosse, Manchester by the Sea) portrayal of the frequently forlorn Mitzi is restrained until the emotional weight of suppression pulls her under. During a harrowing emotional stretch, where her son questions what she believes to be pure motives, a defeated Mitzi emphatically warns him to “….do what your heart says so you don’t owe anyone your life.”

The dishevelment that heaps itself upon the family begins to play itself out as a result of Mitzi’s infidelity with her husband’s best friend, Bennie. Sam discovers the affair while editing film he’s taken of a group outing. His camera has inadvertently captured the two sharing blissful moments together. Moments thought to be private. One can feel palpable relief for the emotionally squashed Mitzi, yet she will learn that happiness comes at the expense of her son’s painful separation from boyhood.

It’s a profound rite of passage when circumstance causes children to redefine their parents as faulted and fallible adults. For Spielberg, it was a gateway experience spawning a river of emotional intelligence, and the characteristic backbone of his most beloved films.

The movie is most buoyant when Spielberg’s native creativity transcends the issues of his youth. When we can witness experiences that found their way, almost whole-cloth, into soaring scenes in films like ET and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. For instance, the unforgettable moment when young boys on bicycles, shepherding ET out of harm’s way, take to the sky, crossing in silhouette against a full moon.     

A chance meeting offers a sublime punctuation at the end of The Fabelmans. Spielberg finds himself in front of legendary filmmaker, John Ford. The cranky director instructs him to look at two posters containing men on horseback beneath a big western sky. He challenges Spielberg to identify the horizon’s location on each. The place between earth and sky that both anchors and divides a photograph. Following a few cringe-worthy answers, the accurate responses prompt this piece of wisdom from Ford: “Remember this. When the horizon is at the bottom, it’s interesting. When the horizon is at the top, it’s interesting. When the horizon is at the middle, it’s boring as s@#t.”

Ford the master, advising Spielberg the student, on the critical importance of point of view, arguably the key ingredient for any successful storytelling endeavor. It’s a solid gold moment. We leave The Fabelmans at this juncture, with a jubilant Sam jaunting away from the camera, Charlie Chaplin-style, into the metaphorical sunset of a great Hollywood sky.

Classic Spielberg.

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Photography from Ross Sneddon at Unsplash

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