The only good lies are told on screen. The kind of lies that convince us photographs can come to life, that the good guys can come out on top, that we can ride our bicycles across the moonlit sky — we’ve eaten them up from the hands of Steven Spielberg.
Yet, he waited 60 years to mythologize his own childhood with “The Fabelmans.” He found the grounds to make the film after constantly revisiting the idea and rejecting it over the years. Conveniently, it’s a film that he could only make in his senior years and after a lifetime of mastering a cinematic language that has never ceased its wondrous qualities.
Sammy Fabelman, played by Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord, stands in as 6-year-old Spielberg. Sammy feels art and his relationships deeply, a theme that permeates the film as he ages. In 1952, those feelings coalesce when his Jewish parents, concert pianist Mitzi (Michelle Williams) and electrical engineer Burt (Paul Dano), take Sammy to see Cecil B. DeMille’s “The Greatest Show on Earth” — his first film on the silver screen. The film spellbinds Sammy enough to venture into filmmaking by recreating the “persistence of vision” — the illusion of motion — of DeMille’s crash sequence with a set of toy trains and Burt’s 8mm camera.
Conceptually and thematically, Sammy’s films grow in complexity with time, but so do the needs between his parents and his likable surrogate uncle, Bennie (Seth Rogen). Meanwhile, an emphatic 16-year-old Sammy (Gabriel LaBelle) struggles with the growing burden of adulthood when he unintentionally captures hints of an affair between Mitzi and Bennie on film — a secret that eventually surfaces and forces Mitzi and Burt to split. The reckoning leads Sammy to a short-lived hiatus from moviemaking.
Several antisemitic encounters at school precede Sammy’s chance to helm a 16mm camera for the first time while filming “senior ditch day” at the beach, subsequently demonstrating his natural eye for the frame and illustrating the birth of an auteur. He films his main antagonist as practically a god among men and garners the respect, and tears even, of his bully at the screening — in the most impactful “magic of cinema” moment in the film.
The film maintains its digestibility thanks to the Spielberg tone, but doesn’t stop at simply communicating “the magic of cinema.” Spielberg has gone on record about his fear of “everything” as a child, which is palpable in the film, but in “The Fabelmans” he wants us to know that not all of his fears were irrational. From that comes a new avenue to explore for the director. While cinema reflects and provokes the best aspects of ourselves, it can also have dire consequences. In haunting foreshadowing, Mitzi’s estranged Uncle Boris (Judd Hirsch) makes a surprise visit to the Fabelman residence, and reminds Sammy that “Family, art — it’ll tear you in two.”
Coupled with Spielberg’s ability to gauge the rhythm of a scene, Michael Khan and Sarah Broshar’s seamless and inventive transitions to different periods of Sammy’s life feel earned.
Frequent Spielberg collaborator and screenwriter Tony Kushner coordinated with his leads in “The Fabelmans” by allowing Williams and Dano to channel their authoritative screen presence to their fullest. Mitzi is one of the more interesting portraits of the Fabelman bunch, a woman caught in the throes of balancing her individuality and duty to her family. Williams fits Mitzi’s shoes finely, gliding across the screen with the same elegance and impulsiveness of her piano movements. More often than not, it’s as if music is playing, but she’s the only one who can hear it.
The Spielberg-Kushner partnership is especially strong in the film’s third act, when Burt receives a photograph from Mitzi in his mail sometime after their divorce. Spielberg frames Dano’s shattered expression in a close-up with negative space above the actor’s head, making room for Burt’s thoughts in his loss of words. It’s one of the more poignant scenes of Spielberg’s filmography and a career defining moment as a maestro of emotion.
As much as the film is about what cinema can do to us, it’s about seizing the life we think we deserve. Early in the film, Burt tells 6-year-old Sammy, “You can’t just love something, you also have to take care of it.” Spielberg hasn’t just loved the movies, and “The Fabelmans” is a testament to how well Spielberg is taking care of this craft.
“The Fabelmans” nationwide release in theaters is on Nov. 23.