There is definitely a trend of late for film directors to take a look, in thinly disguised cinematic memoirs, at their early influences that shaped the artist and person they have become. Kenneth Branagh with Belfast and Paolo Sorrentino with The Hand of God did it last year. Of course there is Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma, and others over the years. Sam Mendes, while not drawing a portrait of his younger self, revisits the movie palaces of his youth in another 2022 offering, Empire of Light, which premiered last weekend at Telluride and will also hit the Toronto Film Festival.
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TIFF is also where the man I recently described as the GOAT, Steven Spielberg, has chosen to debut his own story where the names have been changed but the tale is clearly his. The Fabelmans, basically chronicling his early Jewish family life and infatuation with making movies, had its world premiere Saturday night, the first of Spielberg’s directed movies ever to premiere at a film festival.
This one seems entirely appropriate, and it has been gestating in the director’s head ever since he and his co-writer Tony Kushner started kicking it around during the making of Lincoln over a decade ago. He says he finally made it primarily as a way to bring his late parents Leah and Arnold (to whom the film is dedicated) somehow back to his life. Movies can do that, and no one knows it better than Steven Spielberg.
This one begins with family life in New Jersey, a close-knit Jewish family, and a key defining moment for the very young Sammy Fabelman (Mateo Zoryan Francis DeFord). On an outing to the movies with his mom Mitzi (Michelle Williams) and Dad Burt (Paul Dano), Sammy becomes mesmerized by the images of a train crash in 1952’s Cecil B. DeMille circus epic The Greatest Show on Earth (L.A.’s Orpheum doubles as the N.J. theater). Getting a train set for Hanukkah, a new car each day, Sammy takes his father’s movie camera and, without dad knowing, basically restages the scene from the DeMille picture. It is the beginning of a beautiful relationship between Sammy (Spielberg of course) and the camera. When Dad gets a promotion from General Electric, the family must relocate to Phoenix (where Spielberg grew up).
Before long 10 years have passed and the older teen Sammy (played by Gabriel LaBelle) is making all sorts of films, using his friends including Westerns inspired after seeing 1962’s John Ford classic The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (Branagh did an homage to that one as well in Belfast), and World War II epics among others. A choice scene occurs when his grandmother dies and her feared brother Uncle Boris (Judd Hirsch) arrives to sit shiva, as well as give Sammy a little lecture on the conundrum of balancing art and family. It is a brief role, but Hirsch memorably socks it home drawing applause at Saturday’s premiere.
A key dramatic thread emerges as well when Sammy makes a haunting little film on a camping trip that also includes his father’s best friend and “honorary” uncle to Sammy and his three sisters, Ben (a more refined but effective Seth Rogen), who Mitzi has convinced Burt to bring along to Phoenix and get him hired by his company. Here he captures his mother’s beautifully provocative dance in his nightgown, as well as other footage that disturbs him immensely when he sees her almost romantically interacting with Ben, someone she has become very close to.
In a remarkable scene, we see Sammy editing the footage together and making that discovery. It is all done with no dialogue, but it tells so much about the pain he feels uncovering something the rest of the family does not know yet. That storyline intensifies and becomes a main driver for Sammy as his mother continues to have emotional problems, especially when they make a move necessitated by Burt’s job to Northern California. Here Sammy, now going by Sam, goes to high school, gets bullied by a couple of the taller jocks, experiences some anti-Semitism, and even finds some budding romance with a girl (an amusing Chloe East in the film’s broadest characterization) who is obsessed — and we mean obsessed — with Jesus.
Though his depression about the further decaying state of his parents’ marriage, and his mother’s determination to move back to Phoenix because she misses Ben, has led him to abandon his moviemaking aspirations, the girlfriend inspires him to use his directing talents to a make a movie during “Ditch Day” at the beach, one that will be shown at the prom, another spectacular set piece.
When the parents divorce, the scene shifts to L.A. where Sam lives with his dad in a Brentwood apartment and suffers panic attacks because he can’t stand college, instead wanting to pursue his filmmaking career. One unforgettable and beautifully played scene is worth the price of admission alone when he meets legendary director John Ford (brilliantly impersonated by none other than David Lynch) who doles out some “advice.” It really happened.
There is so much to take in with Spielberg’s memory play, a look back at the boy who would become a legend himself but who assured the opening night audience at TIFF that this is not his farewell. At 75 in fact, with such assured films being released within a year of each other — his first musical West Side Story and now the tender hearted and richly satisfying The Fabelmans — it looks to me like Spielberg is just getting started.
Performance-wise the casting could not be better. Williams is astonishing as Mitzi, a mother trying desperately to keep her family together as she can’t help but follow her heart. Williams is gut-wrenchingly great here. Dano is terrific as the genuinely nice and loving father torn between following his own career and caring for his wife and family under increasingly difficult circumstances. Both the younger Sammy (DeFord) and the primary older Sammy (LaBelle) look remarkably like Spielberg did at their ages and are equally excellent. LaBelle is, in a word, sensational throughout, a young man with a love for movies, but tortured by growing pains and a family drifting apart. Julia Butters is a standout as one of Sammy’s sisters, as are Keeley Karsten and Sophia Kopera. It is also nice to see old pros like Jeannie Berlin and Robin Bartlett turn up as Sammy’s paternal grandmothers. Oakes Fegley and particularly Sam Rechner make impressions as high school troublemakers.
Spielberg has assembled a group of his most reliable and talented filmmaking team to pull this all off including cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, costume designer Mark Bridges, production designer Rick Carter, and film editors Michael Kahn and Sarah Broshar. Of course, long-time collaborator John Williams had to do the score for this most personal of all Spielberg films, and it is a fine one that also makes great use of pop songs of the time like “Walk On By” and “Goodbye Cruel World” that really takes us right back there with Spielberg himself.
Kristie Macosko Krieger produced along with Spielberg and Kushner, who jointly turned out a sterling, sometimes raw, but honest screenplay. And by the way, whoever created the one-sheet poster for this film came up with a joyous image that says it all.
Universal will release the film November 23, only in theaters of course, and a better holiday gift I can not imagine.
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