Movie review: The Fabelmans

(courtesy IMP Awards)

We are accustomed in this age of constant fame and unceasing veneration of achievement to assume that the great and the iconic among us have always been that way.

And while, yes, true greatness or talent is often embryonic in a person, the idea that their rise to their current position is guaranteed or that it will follow a certain trajectory is not really the case.

For all the nature that is in place, and it can be a powerful, impossible-to-ignore motivator to realising inherent potential, nurture can play just as important a role, something brought wondrously to life in the opening scenes of The Fabelmans where Mitzi Schildkraut-Fabelman and Burt Fabelman (Michelle Williams and Paul Dano respectively) are quietly but enthusiastically trying to convince their highly reluctant young son Samuel aka Sammy (Gabriel Labelle) to go and see his first movie.

This opening series of scenes, where Sammy goes from nervously suspect of the idea of moving images racing across a big screen to forever enraptured by this form of visual storytelling, is a vital part of the film which operates as a semi-autobiographical story loosely based on the life of famed filmmaker, Steven Spielberg.

He is, however you look at it, a titanically successfully maker of movies, a man who has an enviable number of the highest grossing films of all time to his credit and who has managed to blend emotionally resonant populist storytelling with real artistry and affecting humanity.

But where did this impressively realised career come from and how did he go from a man unsure of whether he’d like movies at all to someone who is arguably their greatest champion?

While The Fabelmans isn’t intended as a warts-and-all recalling of how Spielberg grew into his prodigious talent, much of the narrative draws from his experience.

We bear witness to him using his model Lionel trains which he received for Hannukah one year in his first filmed segment to recreate the crash scene he has watched in his first film, The Greatest Show on Earth, and going on to to film ever more ambitious cinematic undertakings, all of which involved family and friends and which he used as stepping stones to ever more sophisticated realisation of his love for films and their creation.

What strikes you most clearly in The Fabelmans is how much of the coming of age drama is told in the most ordinary of circumsances.

The film isn’t in a hurry to throw one autobiographical detail after another into the mix, and takes its beguilingly sweet time over 151 emotionally entrancing minutes building up a picture of nascent talent finding its feet before it runs to a career which is fulsomely supported by Mitzi and guardedly encouraged by Burt, an innovative computer engineer, who believes filmmaking is a great hobby, one his son is very good at, and nothing more.

It’s these competing streams of parenting that prove pivotal to young Sammy who cannot repress his need to tell cinematic tales and who diverts all his time, energy and money into taking the stories in his mind out into a real world that is often starkly different to the worlds he brings vividly and emotively to life.

Whether it’s a World War two gunfight with a cast of teenage friends or a lo-fi horror made with his sisters decked out in toilet paper, Sammy has to make films; it comes as naturally to him as breathing and part of the considerable charm of The Fabelmans is that it operates as a love letter to artistry and creativity.

It’s also sagely knowing about what it might cost you too.

When Sammy’s black sheep Uncle Boris (Judd Hirsch) visits the family shortly after a great tragedy which upsets the barely held together dysfunctional balance of his loving but quirky family – all meals are eaten on paper plates and with disposable cutlery so Mitzi won’t ruin her pianist hands with washing up (this being the ’50s and ’60s, there’s no suggestion Burt will step in to do this chore instead) – he makes it clear to a startled and highly disquieted Sammy that while creating art is wonderful, it can also be darkly taxing.

This doesn’t necessarily deter Sammy from pursuing his goal to be a filmmaker, but it does give him pause and make him realise that even the very best of things and the most laudable of goals come with with a price to be paid.

In the end what really makes this sweetly moving but groundedly honest coming-of-age tale come quietly but rapturously alive are superlative performances from a cast who brings alive the idea that the greatest of people always come from somewhere and that it’s in that very ordinary quirkiness that truly wonderful lives are birthed.

Michelle Williams, Paul Dano, and particularly Gabriel LaBelle as Sammy evocatively bring alive the sense that you should never discount any part of your life, no matter how run-of-the-mill it may seem at the time, because everything we experience, the good and the bad (and there are some deeply difficult times including Mtzi’s battles with mental health, Sammy being at the receiving end of anti-Semitic bullying at high school and Burt losing himself in his work) make an indelible impression on us.

It’s often been noted how many of Spielberg’s films speak of family and connection, or its lack, and you can see where this recurrent theme may have come from in The Fabelmans which is as much about the lack of cohesion and connection within families as it is by its happy presence and those moments that reaffirm that you belong and that you’re happy.

By taking us into the world of Sammy’s family in all its happy but chaotically dysfunctional glory, The Fabelmans beautifully and affectingly underscores how we are as much a product of our environment as independent of it.

Sammy clearly has prodigious talent and his path to a stellar career in Hollywood is undeniable, capped by a transcendentally brilliant final set of scenes when his path is all but assured, but he also has to fight to get their too, with his mother’s unwavering support tempered by his father’s qualified belief that his son’s filmmaking is a passing fancy at best and unlikely to be sustained in the long term.

It’s this tug of war between nature and nurture, practicality and art, that informs The Fabelmans with so much thoughtful richness, augmented by a verdant emotionality drawn from the way in which family both makes and breaks us and how if we truly want to make our dreams happen and to give voice to our talent that we will need to realise that life is both light and dark and that we will need to dance with them equally if we are to get where we truly believe we need to be heading.

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