Review: ‘The Fabelmans’ (a fictionalized autobiography)

Where’s the horizon?

In a opening scene that eerily echoes the start of a Batman origin story, a young boy fears his first theatrical experience. A concerned but enthusiastic father (Paul Dano) explains the basics of film and promises wonders yet to come, renewing the child’s interest. After watching The Greatest Show On Earth in 1952, the boy’s mind is preoccupied with the spectacle of a derailed locomotive; after receiving an electric train over Hanukkah, the need to replicate the crash on film drives him, a passion encouraged by his mother (Michelle Williams). As Sammy Fabelman (Gabriel LaBelle) pursues his passion into adolescence, his father’s job move west from Arizona takes the family and dad’s co-worker Bennie (Seth Rogen) into a different world through his camera. As Sammy grows up physically and emotionally, a frightening realization begins to dawn upon him: the camera sees everything — whether he wants it to or not — and there’s real power in that for those daring to master it.

Directed by Steven Spielberg from a script co-written with frequent collaborator Tony Kushner, the film is reportedly the director’s arm’s-length view of highlights from his own childhood. Influences in his work are littered throughout the trailers, from a young Indiana Jones to Super 8 and Duel to Back to the Future. The name of the film isn’t called “The Spielbergs” because there’s something other than himself the director wants audiences to see — something he needs audiences to understand — about the way things can be seen and how the obvious can be overlooked. Is the film merely a peek into one version of the director’s memories, or is it a nostalgic gateway into the onlooker’s own?

Framing a fictional family and their aspiring son through a filmmaker’s lens, the story is rooted in “finding what you love and letting it destroy you.” A scene stolen by Judd Hirsch as “Uncle Boris” is both encouraging and a warning, even preceded by a genuine omen of sorts, that Sammy’s endeavor to breach the studios of Hollywood are fraught with dangers in his lifetime pursuit. Between an insight into family matters and dealing with bigotry head-on in high school, the final act both makes and unmakes the protagonist. After Sammy chooses to weaponize his craft for a senior project, neither he nor his antagonist are prepared for its targeted emotional impact — an affecting demonstration of the power of film.

The opposing forces of an encouraging mother who had dreams of her own with a father’s insistence upon a trade or college degree is a sign of the times, when one salary could support an entire family and the arts were a luxury for the rich, but you can’t keep a good imagination down. Each time Sammy is asked to put the camera away or decides to do so himself, opportunities keep arising to use it one more time and sift through the footage for the best edit, encouragement often from the most unlikely sources. It hints at imposter syndrome, a personal detail hidden between the frames that, in times of doubt, everyone feels unworthy and/or unsuccessful; the difference is always in what that person does next.

The film ends at a curious point, right as Sammy manages to get a foot in the door — a cameo-tipped coda that says a lot without really saying anything at all. Steven (may I call you Steven?) has filmed a personal love letter to fans of film, even if those films aren’t his. He does this not as someone who enjoys talking about himself but who deeply enjoys filmmaking and everything that goes into it, perhaps in the hope this film will inspire the next great filmmaker wrestling with self-doubt to pick up their camera one more time.

The Fabelmans is rated PG-13 for some strong language, thematic elements, brief violence, drug use, and knowing where to cut the scene.

Four skull recommendation out of four

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