The film opens on a story I’ve heard before in an interview with Steven Spielberg. Outside a movie theater in 1952, people are lined up to see the new Cecil B. DeMille picture, The Greatest Show on Earth. Little Sammy Fabelman (a fictionalized young Spielberg) is apprehensive about seeing his first movie. His parents, Burt (Paul Dano) and Mitzi (Michelle Williams) build up his confidence, explaining how the projector makes still pictures look like they’re moving and soon little Sammy is witnessing an exciting circus train wreck! It captivates the boy so much he wants a train for Hanukkah. But after he gets the beloved train, he wants to recreate the wreck he saw in the movie. Rather than let him crash the train repeatedly, his mother gives him the brilliant idea to film it once and then he can watch it happen all he likes. What little Sammy films is brilliant and the first step to a long love of film.
The film allows us to watch Sammy (Gabriel LaBelle) grow from a little boy enchanted by the magic he can capture on his family’s little 8mm camera to a teenager assembling a group of friends to act in his latest film projects and editing the film alone in his room. I loved scenes showing Sammy and his friends from Scouts rallying in the desert filming thrilling westerns and epic war movies. Even better are the reactions from family and friends when Sammy premiers his films as part of a scouting project. These young teen years feel like the perfect place for a young filmmaker to learn, grow and just have fun with this craft.
Yet Sam’s father is always calling film making a hobby. Sam knows that it’s more than that. His uncle Boris (Judd Hirsch), who makes an unexpected and brief visit, sees Sammy for what he is: an artist. The advice he has for this young artist isn’t all that encouraging, “Art will give you crowns in heaven and laurels on Earth, but also, it will tear your heart out and leave you lonely. You’ll be a shanda for your loved ones. An exile in the desert. A gypsy. Art is no game! Art is dangerous as a lion’s mouth. It’ll bite your head off.” From here out Sammy feels that his art could tear him away from his family, that they will never understand his passion. But does he want a life half lived? He fears that is what his mother, once an accomplished concert pianist, has chosen. Later in the film we see how giving up on dreams may be eating away at her.
To make such a dramatic film about your own upbringing must have been very daunting to Mr. Spielberg. Like all his films, he handles this family drama with care and compassion. But I imagine this must have taken a good amount of courage to bring to film. Through the up and downs, he is not afraid to show the moments that are less cheery. He doesn’t shy away from hard moments or moments that make one person look bad. But like many family dramas, the parents are just people, flesh and blood, no good guy or bad guy, no angel vs demon. The conflicts are human, delicate, unnerving and yet concrete and tangible. Perhaps it’s a healing process for Mr. Spielberg, to flesh these out in the sacred light of a theater over 50 years later.
A powerful moment in the film is when Sam is tasked with filming the senior skip day at the beach. He’s the new kid, not popular and picked on by some anti semitic jocks. But picking up the camera again seems to get him out of his late-teen slump. The film he premiers at prom is a hit, showing off the fun in the sun, making some kids look like losers and others look like heroes. I think this is the moment Sam realizes just how much power and influence his movie making can have. At this moment, I think it scares him a bit and makes him realize what responsibility he holds behind the camera.
Of course this film is a must-see for any Spielberg fan or aspiring filmmaker. With its PG-13 rating mostly built on light cursing and bullying violence, I would let most big kids see this movie if they hold those interests. Seeing another kid working hands on with an old camera and film can be inspiring. The family drama and bullying make this uncomfortable for young children. But I would consider The Fabelmans a great family movie for a film loving family.
“You do what your heart says you have to. ‘Cause you don’t owe anyone your life. Not even me.”