There is definitely a recent trend among film directors to take a look, in thinly veiled cinematic memoir, 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 that of Alfonso Cuarón. Rome, 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 in Telluride and is also coming to the Toronto International Film Festival.
TIFF is also where the man I recently described as the GOAT, Steven Spielberg, chose to debut his own story where the names were changed but the story is clearly his. The Fabelmans basically chronicling his early Jewish family life and his obsession with making movies, it had its world premiere on Saturday night, the first of the Spielberg-directed films to premiere at a film festival.
This one seems entirely appropriate, and it’s been brewing in the director’s head ever since he and co-writer Tony Kushner began to mull it over during the making of lincoln more than a decade ago. He says that he ultimately did it primarily as a way to bring his late parents Leah and Arnold (to whom the film is dedicated) back to life. Movies can do that, and no one knows that better than Steven Spielberg.
It begins with family life in New Jersey, a close-knit Jewish family, and a key defining moment for very young Sammy Fabelman (Matthew Zoryan Francis DeFord) where, on a movie outing with his mother Mitzi (Michelle Williams) and Dad Burt (Paul Dano) is mesmerized by images of a train wreck in Cecil B. DeMille’s 1952 circus epic. The Greatest Show on Earth (LA’s However, Orpheum doubles as the theater for NJ). Getting a train ready for Hanukkah, a new car every day, Sammy grabs his dad’s movie camera and, unbeknownst to Dad, basically re-enacts the scene from DeMille’s photo. It’s 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 move to Phoenix, Arizona (where Spielberg grew up).
Before long, 10 years have passed and older teenager Sammy (played by Gabriel LaBelle) is making all kinds of movies, using his friends, including westerns inspired after seeing John Ford’s 1962 classic. The man who shot Liberty Valance ( Branagh also paid homage to that in Belfast), and epics of the Second World War, among others. A choice scene ensues as his grandmother dies and his dreaded brother, Uncle Boris (Judd Hirsch), arrives to sit on the shiva, as well as give Sammy a little lecture on the conundrum of the balance between art and family. . It’s a brief part, but Hirsch sticks it memorably, drawing applause at Saturday’s premiere.
A key dramatic thread also emerges when Sammy makes a disturbing little movie on a camping trip that also includes his father’s best friend and “honorary” uncle of Sammy and his three sisters, Ben (a more polished but effective Seth Rogen) a whom Mitzi has convinced Burt to take him to Phoenix and hire him at her company. Here he captures her mother’s wonderfully provocative dance in her nightgown, as well as other footage that disturbs him immensely as he sees her interacting almost romantically with Ben, someone with whom he has become very close.
In one notable scene, we see Sammy editing the footage together and making that discovery. It’s all done without dialogue, but it says a lot about the pain he feels at finding out something the rest of the family doesn’t yet know. That story escalates and becomes Sammy’s main driver as his mother continues to struggle emotionally, especially when they make a move required by Burt’s job to Northern California. Here Sammy, now called Sam, goes to high school, gets bullied by a couple of taller jocks, experiences some anti-Semitism, and even finds a budding romance with a girl (an amusing Chloe East in the film’s broader characterization). ) who is obsessed, and we mean obsessed – with Jesus
Though his depression over his parents’ deteriorating marriage and his mother’s determination to return to Phoenix because she misses Ben have caused him to abandon his film aspirations, the girlfriend inspires him to use his directing talents to make a movie. film during “Ditch Day” on the beach, one to be shown at the prom, another spectacular scene.
When the parents divorce, the scene changes to Los Angeles, where Sam lives with his father in a Brentwood apartment and is having panic attacks because he can’t stand college and wants to pursue his film career. An unforgettable and beautifully acted scene is worth the price of admission as he meets legendary director John Ford (brilliantly portrayed by none other than David Lynch) who doles out some “advice”. It really happened.
There’s a lot to take in with Spielberg’s memory game, a look back at the boy who would become a legend but assured the opening night audience at TIFF that this isn’t his farewell. In fact, at 75 years old, with films so sure that they are released a year apart, his first musical West Side Story and now the tender and richly satisfying heart The Fabelmans – It seems to me that Spielberg has just begun.
As for the interpretation, the casting could not be better. Williams is amazing as Mitzi, a mother desperately trying to keep her family together, as she can’t help but follow her heart. Williams is heartbreakingly great here. Dano is excellent as the genuinely kind and loving father who is torn between pursuing his own career and caring for his wife and family in increasingly difficult circumstances. Both the younger Sammy (DeFord) and the older Sammy (LaBelle) look a lot like Spielberg at their age and are equally excellent. LaBelle is, in a word, sensational throughout, a young movie lover, but tortured by growing pains and a family falling apart. Julia Butters stands out as one of Sammy’s sisters, as do Keeley Karsten and Sophia Kopera. It’s also nice to see old professionals like Jeannie Berlin and Robin Bartlett appear as Sammy’s paternal grandmothers. Oakes Fegley and particularly Sam Rechner come across as high school troublemakers.
Spielberg has assembled a group of his most trusted and talented film crew to pull it all off, including director of photography 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 score this most personal of Spielberg’s films, and it’s a good one that also makes great use of period pop songs like “Walk On By.” and “Goodbye Cruel World”. that really brings us back there with Spielberg himself. Kristie Macosko Krieger produced along with Spielberg and Kushner, who together produced an excellent, sometimes crude, but honest script. And by the way, whoever created the single sheet poster for this movie came up with a cheery image that says it all.
Universal is releasing the film on November 23, only in theaters of course, and I can’t imagine a better Christmas present.