Cast: Michelle Williams, Gabriel LaBelle, Paul Dano
Director: Steven Spielberg
Rating: Four stars (out of 5)
Employing a genteel, unflashy semi-autobiographical mode, Steven Spielberg returns to his adolescent years in The Fabelmans. The masterfully mounted film captures the pangs of growing up in the face of scepticism over the utility of making movies and, in the process, finding one’s metier in spite of the hindrances.
The director, working with a screenplay written with long-time collaborator Tony Kushner, brings unfailing dexterity to bear upon the orchestration of the varied elements that have gone into this fascinating coming-of-age story that records the ups and downs of the formative phase of an eventful life.
Many major directors have in recent times made films that look back at their childhood/youth or explore the fallouts of painful, life-altering ruptures. Notable among these are Pedro Almodovar’s Pain and Glory, Paolo Sorrentino’s The Hand of God, Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast and Sam Mendes’ Empire of Light. Each has been of a distinct timbre stemming from the essence of the filmmaker’s creative credo.
The Fabelmans, too, has the Spielberg imprimatur all over it. The storytelling is meticulous, the plotting is impeccable, the drama and emotions are mined for maximum impact, and the flow of the narrative is firmly focussed on the epiphanies and chance encounters that throw doors open when all avenues seem blocked.
At the heart of The Fabelmans, which spans from the early 1950s to the mid-196os, is Sammy (Gabriel LaBelle), a boy who discovers the power of cinema when his parents, Mitzi and Burt Fabelman (Michelle Williams and Paul Dano), take him to a New Jersey movie theatre in January 1952 to watch Cecil B. DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth.
One particular sequence in the movie – a train crashes into a car and then into another train, sending the coaches hurtling off the tracks – scares Sammy out of his wits even as the experience of watching it etches itself indelibly on his impressionable mind. Life is never the same again for the boy.
With his father’s Super 8 camera furtively handed to him by his mother, Sammy films the crash of a mechanical toy train at home. His passion grows quickly and the boy never stops filming even though his computer engineer-dad dismisses Sammy’s fixation as no more than a child’s hobby.
Burt Fabelman is categorical that movies aren’t things that people can use. They are not real, they are imaginary, he says to his son. Sammy’s mother thinks otherwise. She is full of admiration for her son’s proclivity towards giving his imagination full rein.
Besides telling the story of Sammy’s pursuit of his first love, The Fabelmans throws light on the obstacles that the boy faces as a teenager because of his Jewish identity as well as the consequences of his parents’ troubled marriage on him and his three younger sisters, one of whom describes the Fabelmans as “an out-of-control, falling-apart family”.
Sammy’s dad, a conscientious, career-minded engineer, is too immersed in his pioneering data recording work to notice the ramifications of the repeated dislocations that the family has to endure. The Fabelmans move first to Phoenix, Arizona and then to Saratoga, California as the much-in-demand Burt Fabelman hops jobs. The shift to Northern California does not go down well with either Mitzi or Sammy. Both suffer and not always in silence.
Sammy’s film of a camping trip that the Fabelmans make with Burt’s best friend Bernie Loewy (Seth Rogen) reveals a shocking truth that turns the boy’s world upside down and leaves a deep wound in his heart and a scar on his back the size of his mother’s hand.
Having stumbled upon a secret that threatens his relationship with his mom, Sammy vows not to touch a camera again. Winding up in a town where there are no Jews for miles, he is bullied by ant-Semitic boys twice his size. He longer has the option of seeking refuge in filmmaking.
Mitzi’s estranged uncle Boris (Judd Hirsch), a one-time circus lion tamer and a film set hand, pays the Fabelmans a surprise visit. The encounter turns out to be a bit of an eyeopener for Sammy. We are junkies and art is our drug, Boris says to Sammy, referring to his own calling, his grand-nephew’s passion for filmmaking, and Mitzi Fabelman’s skills as a pianist.
Movies are like dreams, dreams are scary, a younger Sammy (Mateo Zoryan Francis-DeFord) says early in the film. The boy’s mother retorts: movies are like dreams that you never forget. But for Uncle Boris, art is a lion’s mouth, it will bite your head off. The Fabelmans alternates between the dreamlike and the revelatory, moving back and forth with its sense of wonder always intact.
Gabriel LaBelle delivers a standout performance as a troubled teenager whose choices are repeatedly obstructed by hurdles that aren’t necessarily of his own making. Michelle Williams, in a role that is as crucial to the film as that of the boy who would be a consummate Hollywood gamechanger, shines the brightest. She is at the centre of a few of the film’s most powerful scenes and she gives them her very best. Paul Dano is terrific, too.
Keep an eye out for David Lynch in the guise of “the greatest filmmaker that has ever lived”, a towering Hollywood golden age personage who broadens Samuel Fabelman’s horizons as an aspiring filmmaker with a tip that has stood the test of time.
The Fabelmans is not as memorably dazzlingly as, say, Schindler’s List, ET or The Color Purple. And it is definitely not in the league of Fanny and Alexander. It is, however, by all reckoning, a labour of love that radiates great warmth, demonstrates a secure grasp on the material and celebrates the enduring magic of self-discovery, no matter what price one has to pay for it.
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