Once upon a time, Sammy Fabelman shuffled up to the theater, afraid to watch his first movie. In a long-ago era where the concept is so novel, his parents have to explain it to him to soothe his fear of the experience. “Movies are dreams you never forget,” his mother Mitzi (Michelle Williams) presents to him. His father Burt (Paul Dano) tries a different approach. “It’s called persistence of vision…” he explains, going into the technical aspects of how a movie works. These are the Fabelman parents, and caught between them in the theater and watching the train crash sequence of Cecil B. DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth, is wide-eyed Sammy, terrified of the movies.1
Right then is where Spielberg shrugs off any critic’s portrait of him as an unintelligent sentimentalist. While this film’s detractors say this is simply some ode to the movies Oscar-bait mush, they clearly lack the power in what Spielberg and co-screenwriter Tony Kushner are saying, and taking the impression of what the movie is rather than the whole. The relationship between Sammy and the screen goes so much deeper than pure joy; he will continue to take the camera as a way of taking control of the fear in front of him. Obviously, this complexity comes from personal experience, for the story of The Fabelmans is mined directly from the early years and relationships of Steven Spielberg himself.
We will see Sammy grow up and discover, like Elliot does the otherworldly E.T., that the camera gives him a superpower. The journey he takes as he grows into young adulthood teaches him the rules of his gift, and how it can become a terrible curse. “I don’t know!” Sammy responds when asked about his motivations for how he cut together some scenes. The truth is he doesn’t understand where his powers come from or yet how to make sure he’s doing everything intentionally. Through the tale, the specter of Steven Spielberg behind the camera feels a little unknowable, just as Sammy finds himself the same way. As the title suggests, this is a fable, foremost warning of the dangers of loving something so infinite and insatiable as art.
Telling his story decades of success later, the now old master is at the height of those superpowers. His close-ups aren’t just about where the action is, but about subtly showing where the characters’ thoughts are. A hole in a sheet of music. A toy train on a nightstand. A roll of film tucked into an apron pocket. It may seem so simple, but we’re spoiled by Spielberg’s 33 film run into thinking this is easy. The movie itself illustrates through young Sammy’s problem-solving and magnetic compositions how untrue that is.
Spielberg isn’t the only one working incredibly well here. Five actors in particular do some of the best work of the year, mostly underpraised due to their commitment to hitting the currently uncool storybook tone too perfectly. The teenage Sammy is played by Gabriel Labelle with as much talent for magically poignant gestures in front of the lens as his character has behind it. Paul Dano as Sammy’s father brings the perfect balance of care and love that you won’t expect from the character; his pleas for his son to put down the camera in favor of other things look silly on the page and worse in the trailer, but Dano understands why he’s saying it. Seth Rogen applies the intelligence you rarely see him employ, hugging closer to his work in Steve Jobs than any of his comedic roles with good cause; if he was too funny or too rude, the movie could crack. One scene that would feel too spelling out in a lesser actor’s hands is handled masterfully by Judd Hirsch as a wacky older relative. And as you’ve probably heard by now, Michelle Williams steals the show as Sammy’s mother. She plays perhaps the most “real” person in the movie even if her antics seem over the top. We place too much value on realism in movies today, and it shouldn’t be inherently praised; rather, it is worth attention that Williams balances atop a tightrope. If she was as blatantly nymphish as Dano’s glasses-wearing father is blatantly practical, we wouldn’t forgive her or Speilberg.
There are a few moments in the film that weirdly show the movie’s seams, and I only mention them so my arguments for its artistic perfection are taken seriously rather than personally. The entire tornado sequence feels like a self-indulgent “It has to be there because it actually is a weird thing I remember” moment, adding nothing to the plot and simply repeating characterization that we’ve heard before. Another is a very short moment; a close-up insert shot of a taximeter as Sammy’s uncle rides away interrupts a oner with such odd ferocity, and for no obvious reason, that you are jolted out of the precious Spielberg trance for a moment. Then there’s a silly joke triggered by Sammy looking upward mid-kiss at an object above his head. I will not spoil what it is, but I won’t have to; the joke is so obvious I found myself reciting the contents of the shot aloud before seeing it. Most audiences would have the same reaction; the point of the scene is hammered one too many times, and that’s the strike that bangs the nail farther than flush. These moments of breaking the magic are sparse, and I suspect on repeat viewings will disappear entirely.
The passionate Sammy personifies an under-discussed Spielberg archetype; the obsessive. Young Sammy in a boy scout uniform unable to think of anything but movies evokes similar scenes in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade where a young River Phoenix plays young Indie in the origin story for his love of archeological adventure. Scaring his sister with how coldly he shuts himself in his room to edit after a huge family fight, Sammy again calls back to another Spielberg character, this one in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, who can’t help building a mountain in the living room. In some ways, Spielberg has always been making this movie about the grip of this vice, this drug that is passion.
Calling my girlfriend the moment I left the theater, my first words were “they made a movie about me.” Biased hogwash some will say. Truthfully though, in making a film so personal to his experience, Spielberg points a camera at the internity of anyone who loves an art knowing that its hunger for you is unquenchable. Once you fall in love with it, perhaps as a way to make sense of the world as Sammy does, you will find yourself consumed by it. But that’s just coming from a guy writing this at one in the morning to make sure his movie review for a dozen subscribers gets up on time for no other reason than he loves doing it; what would I know of these things?