There are film directors that are known for their visual styles, while others are more closely tied to the genre they excel in. For Spielberg, his legacy lies in his skillful articulation of innocence and imagination, one that is once again explored in his latest film, The Fablemans.
By one measure, it is a coming-of-age drama about Sammy Fabelman (Gabriel LaBelle) falling in and out (and in again) of his love for making movies, while navigating between the complex bonds of family, friends and young romance. But right at its core, is an ode to the magic of film-making – how it fuels expression and escapism for the maker and viewer alike. After all, it’s a loose autobiography.
Yes – though not readily highlighted, The Fablemans is based on Steven Spielberg’s own nascent journey into filmmaking.
The director’s love of the medium is no secret, but less talked about is his personal relationship with his family and divorced parents. The film parallels many of the key events and arcs that led to the evolving family dynamics, including accidentally capturing suppressed relationships on film, and Spielberg having to live in a household with two very disparate personalities. At many times, it appears that his passion for film-making is central to the rising tensions, but oftentimes it is merely a scapegoat to the differences that already lie in the fundamentals.
The Fablemans is really Spielberg’s tribute to the medium – for better and worse – for not just shaping him into the person that he is today, but also how it propelled him out of these difficult situations. Lest one thinks this is a vanity project, the themes here are very relatable. The loss of innocence, bullying, identity and human bonds are all topics that one can find a connection with within the story.
Spielberg guides us through these subjects with plenty of grace, unravelling them slowly through a film about films. In one scene, he reveals the source of his simmering anger by showing hidden footage to his beloved mother, Mitzi Fabelman (Michelle Williams). As she sits in the closet watching, the sound of the rolling film strip being interrupted by the edits (traditional film had to be spliced and taped for their edits, thus sounding different at those points on a projector when passing through) and her changing expression is what tells us what is happening without actually watching the content. In another, while producing an epic war piece and directing his talent, Sammy realises that the instructions he’s giving his talent is a realisation he is sharing with himself. These moments are what Spielberg excels in – tender epiphanies that transition us between significant chapters of our lives.
The cast supports his story beautifully as well. LeBelle is at once wholesome and mature in his portrayal – a charismatic protagonist that holds the audience’s attention with ease. Williams and Paul Dano, who plays the pragmatic-to-a-fault father, are just as successful in holding down their roles as free-spirited creative and a nerdy engineer. Though perhaps more could be done to juxtapose this friction, Spielberg prefers to spend more time on the impact on the children – as he often does in his titles. One of my best moments was watching Judd Hirsch spice things up as Uncle Bori.
By no means should one think that The Fablemans is a tortured family drama. Under his hand, the film remains lit from within with a warm glow. Love, like many things in life, comes in a form that is challenging and unexpected, and Spielberg draws out this message with reverence. But more than his skill, it is his innate surrender to his curiosity and awe – one more often found in children – that makes The Fablemans such a joy to watch, and the ending such a poetic ethos to his spectacular life.
Beautifully shot and skillfully crafted, The Fabelmans is fitting tribute to the art of film, as well as to the influences that have given us a unique and talented filmmaker.
First published: www.movieXclusive.com