Steven Spielberg is the latest in a series of authors who decided to reach into their own childhood and youth and film a coming-of-age drama with autobiographical elements. This prompted Spielberg, after more than two decades, to write “AI” himself, which he created together with his frequent collaborator Tony Kushner. And “The Fabelmans” is a nice, touching, emotional and warm humorous drama in which Spielberg really seems to have inserted a lot of things from his own life. Young Sammy Fabelman (Gabriel LaBelle as a teenager) is a kid who became infected with film at an early age, and he apparently inherited that artistic touch from his pianist mom Mitzi (Michelle Williams). Dad Burt (Paul Dano) is an engineer, a rational guy who also lives in his own world and encourages his son to be himself, he films, but to a certain extent and until he realizes that young Sammy might start thinking about making movies as a life calling.
And growing up in Arizona in the late fifties and early sixties for Sammy and his three younger sisters seems like a fairytale life. He makes movies with friends and family, and Burt’s best friend Bennie (Seth Rogen) is almost an attached member of the family. The idyll for all family members will dissolve when they move to California for Burt’s new job, when they will become the only Jews in the whole town, causing Sammy to become a victim of bullying at the new school. But even before that he will discover his mother’s secret and everything will change for them in a new environment where Sammy will briefly start to think about giving up his dreams and making films, but we all know very well how Spielberg’s life developed and luckily so that didn’t happen.
It is a film full of warmth and a film that Spielberg imagined back in the late nineties, but he decided to keep the story in it for a while longer. Partly because he feared that his parents would not be too happy when they saw how he saw his youthful days and how he saw their relationship. This is an excellent film because the viewer thinks all the time what of all this really happened, and what is fiction and what is real. Spielberg masterfully mixed it and “The Fabelmans” is at the same time a true Spielbergian, fairytale, grandiose, yet intimate film, with a lot of details. which may go unnoticed, but are extremely important to the story. It is probably already unquestionable that Spielberg is a master of his craft and “The Fabelmans” is a superbly directed film in which he avoids falling into clichés and does not seem theatrical for a moment.
It is interesting that “The Fabelmans” was also Spielberg’s biggest commercial failure ever, but that actually says more about today’s taste of the average film consumer than about Spielberg himself, for whom this (at least for me) is the best film in many years. It is fantastic to follow the life of that boy, later a teenager, and the dynamics of relationships in his family, in the moments when he discovers film, gets his first camera and starts shooting his first children’s films. And from those earliest days, Sammy seems to understand that the camera is not only for capturing some moments in life or telling stories, but that it is much more. That it is a tool that can be perfectly manipulated and completely twist reality, portray someone as better or worse than what they are in reality, but also that the camera can capture some moments and situations that escape the eye.
We see here how Sammy already has a clicker for shooting movies as a kid and his children’s movies seem fascinating and incredibly high quality for the conditions in which he shoots them. It is a film about dreams, realized or unrealized, ambitions, love, family, growing up and shaping into the person you will be later. It’s a film that has all the elements of a classic coming-of-age story – from family conflicts, dreams, first loves, problems at school, but Spielberg does it all so refined that even though it’s one of those stories we’ve seen countless times, again it passes and lights up. There are also great episodes of Judd Hirsch as the old uncle who will further awaken the artistic spark in Sammy, especially David Lynch as his childhood hero John Ford.