A profoundly moving piece that marries a coming-of-age story and a love letter to not only movie-making, but to what it is to be a creative.
Jewish family the Fabelmans are as pretty as a picture for their young son Sam, and when he is first introduced to movies his life is changed forever. However, as he grows up, the perfect family is frayed at the edges, and reality takes hold. But his passion for movie-making could be his salvation, albeit a difficult one…
Directed by Steven Spielberg, The Fabelmans is a close-to-reality dramatization of the director’s own childhood. “The most personal film” he’s ever made, he says in a theatre-specific introduction shown before the film begins. Like Mendes and Chazelle already this year, Spielberg thanks us (personally) for going to the theatre and experiencing the film as it should be.
This is poignant, but also sad. That a director would have to say that the cinema experience cannot be replicated… and that the art of movie magic cannot be condensed into a phone screen… But here we are; a time when passions are laid bare, at a time when cinema is, sadly, most vulnerable.
But to return to The Fabelmans, the film is the third “movie-about-movies” Cinema Cocoa has seen on the trot, and is… perhaps… the best. Mostly because it is more understated, but also more refined than the other two ventures. It is also far more personal and relatable.
Set in the 1950s, the Fabelman family are headed by Burt (Paul Dano) a technically-minded and very intelligent man who is making strides in the field of computing, and his wife Mitzi (Michelle Williams) who is creative and very talented with music. The film’s focus is Sammy, played as a child by Mateo Zoryan and older by Gabriel LaBelle, and his sudden rapture with film. With them is Burt’s friend Bennie (Seth Rogan) and Sammy’s sisters Natalie and Reggie.
While the film’s premise is about a young boy’s love of cinema, it is ultimately about a family, and the often unpleasant twists and turns one goes through as everyone gets older. Spielberg gives enticing little clues from the beginning. Generational differences; pressures from omnipresent sources. Traditional family values that are upheld. Parental pressure as well as parental guidance.
All of these things become enflamed with time, and meanwhile Sam goes deeper into the strange headspace of creativity; the role of an observer. One who is intensely affected by the emotions of others, but also analyses it all by maintaining a cold distance from it. It is paradoxical, yet Gabriel LaBelle nails the awkward yet brilliant mannerisms.
The chemistry between the actors is excellent; with Spielberg being very forward with them on set about his own experiences and how they should portray their characters. This with the costumes, sets and 1950s aesthetics, makes everything very believable. Even some of the film’s more familiar trappings (the high school melodramas) feel rewarding, fun, and earnest in the correct ways.
Watching Sam go though his early film-making years is great fun. Watching as child’s play becomes something real. With this comes adversity from his father, a pragmatist, who continuously refers to this being “a hobby” and something Sam will grow out of. The dichotomy of a child refusing to become like their parents while also being the sum of their parts is put in full focus here. With all of its bumps, bruises, and revelations.
There are many great moments between characters as well. Significant moments that are played with just the right mix of goofy and realism; from Sam’s eccentric and estranged uncle Judd Hirsch, to fateful encounters with the school bully or Sam first crush.
Perhaps the one issue, which is such an odd one and seems to be a trend of Steven “no one will question it” Spielberg… Mateo Zoryan and Gabriel LaBelle, who both play Sam at different ages, have blue and brown eyes respectively. What the heck?
It is not dissimilar to another irritating Spielberg decision, when in his war film Warhorse, the Germans speak English, even between themselves.
Overall, though, The Fabelmans is a massively moving experience. It is a quiet, introspective look at childhood and what shapes a person, especially a creative and creatively intelligent person. While it isn’t as focused on movie-making as other films released recently, the heart of the film is absolutely driven by one person’s passion for movies and the power films have over people.
Additional Marshmallows: At 150 minutes, it felt shorter; I wish there had been more!