Review by: Jonathan W. Hickman
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Cast: Michelle Williams, Gabriel LaBelle, Paul Dano, Seth Rogen and Judd Hirsch
MPAA rating: PG-13
Running time: 2 hours, 31 minutes
Available as a theatrical release
After remaking the iconic musical West Side Story last year and dedicating that film to his late father, Steven Spielberg digs his family history into the rich and rewarding drama The Fabelmans.
Spielberg’s very personal coming-of-age story is one to hate, and even at just over two and a half hours it’s consistently captivating and insightful.
Directed by Spielberg, who co-wrote the screenplay with longtime collaborator Tony Kushner, the film follows the struggles of the titular family in post-World War II America. It was immaculately shot by Spielberg’s permanent cinematographer Janusz Kaminski (Oscar winner for Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan). While the great performances throughout this awards season will be remembered, it’s the camera that’s one of the film’s most prominent characters.
The Kaminski/Spielberg combination makes perfect use of the lens to convey the film’s focused angle of view. We see events through the eyes of young Sammy (Gabriel LaBelle), who, like Spielberg, has found his calling in filmmaking. The images feel so personal that viewers should be passionate about Sammy in a heartfelt way.
Paul Dano (The Riddler in The Batman) and multiple Oscar nominee Michelle Williams play Sammy’s father, Burt, and mother, Mitzi. Comedy actor Seth Rogen takes a serious turn as Bennie, a family friend.
From Sammy’s point of view, Burt is an overly controlling but brilliant parent. Burt is detail oriented and
explains the inner workings of almost everything in her life. Burt warns Sammy early on that his new model train is a delicate machine that can easily be damaged. Of course, that doesn’t stop the boy from recreating a famous scene from The Greatest Show on Earth, in which he crashes the electric locomotive into a toy car and films it over and over again. And his partner in crime is classical pianist Mitzi, whom Sammy initially sees as an unstoppable creative force.
It’s the camera that informs Sammy about the intricacies of life. As he gets older, he judges everything around him through a viewfinder. His relationship with the camera is so close that the machine is often left under his pillow at night. But what he captures on film is a truth he may not be ready to accept.
Seeing the truth through filming life is one of the film’s recurring themes. Home videos capture family moments, usually the good times. But if you look closely and inspect the entire framework, you may learn more about your loved ones than they would ever tell you directly.
For Sammy, the camera is a revelation. We see him making films with his friends and when they are shown we see the profound effect the films have on his concerned mother. Sammy’s home video and fictional productions merge, and he realizes that all the camera tricks in the world are no match for real, good old-fashioned emotion.
While Williams is likely to receive accolades for her work, Judd Hirsch delivers a scene-stealing performance as a visiting uncle who roughly imparts some sage wisdom to teenage Sammy.
A mainstay of television and film for decades, Hirsch was nominated just once for an Academy Award for “Ordinary People,” in 1980. He’s so alive and, frankly, constructively terrifying that he should get the attention of Academy voters.
Spielberg’s skillful use of Hirsch and other contrasting faces demonstrates the director’s understanding of how the film can take small events and represent profound truths. Coming of age is filled with many critical moments, and in The Fabelmans Spielberg focuses on some particularly powerful revelations (like the sequences with Hirsch). And since this film is loosely based on his own life, Spielberg knows how to push the right emotional buttons.
Surprisingly, this relatively quiet family portrait turns out to be damn entertaining. Spielberg probably invented the summer blockbuster in 1975 with “Jaws”. But while many viewers dismiss this perfect movie as a shark thriller, it’s the rich characters that make the rubber monster believable.
The camera may play a crucial role in The Fabelmans, but the film works because Spielberg develops authentic relationships. There’s a sincerity here, but one that doesn’t wallow in annoying trifles. Compare the erratic and rather dour “Armageddon Time” released earlier this month. The magic of Spielberg is that while he bases his films on characters, he also understands what powerful visual storytelling can achieve.
Spielberg’s pacing and use of Sammy’s point of view, his cinematic memories, allows the director to balance the heavier scenes with light whims. This creative combination of reality and filtered memories gives Spielberg flexibility that will endear The Fabelmans to audiences. He somehow avoids overly sentimental handling of the material but retains enough bite to make us believe and understand.
“The Fabelmans” is an impressive work by Spielberg, who, after more than 50 years of film production, shows us the dramatic power of the medium of film.