The Fabelmans: The BRWC Review. By Joe Muldoon.
The Fabelmans joins the ranks of Fellini’s 81⁄2 and Tornatore’s Cinema Paradiso as one of the greatest filmic love-letters to cinema to date. A deeply personal drama, Steven Spielberg’s newest Oscar-tipped adventure is as charming as it can be tear-jerking. We’re introduced to Sammy Fabelman (Gabriel LaBelle and Mateo Zoryan), a young boy who discovers a passion for filmmaking, a stand-in for Spielberg himself. After attending a screening of The Greatest Show On Earth with his parents, Mitzi and Burt (Michelle Williams and Paul Dano), the boy grows obsessed with the train crash sequence, determined to recreate it himself. With the help of Burt’s gift of a rather expensive train set and a Super 8 camera, Sammy’s filmmaking aspirations are born.
We sail through his formative years, the boy coming to terms with the world and people around him, and we spend the majority of the film experiencing his teenage years. Through the instability of his home life, including the frequent home moves, strained relationship of his parents, and antisemitic bullying experienced at school, filmmaking becomes Sammy’s constant place of stability.
His home movie projects grow in ambition; having started with toilet-roll mummy shorts, he reimagines John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, and then creates a very impressive WWII film ‘Escape To Nowhere’. It is here that he truly develops his directing chops, managing to bring out surprisingly strong performances from his fellow Scouts. Interestingly, Spielberg has since stated that with cinematographer Janusz Kaminski’s help, Sammy’s films are near-exact recreations of the films he himself made as a child.
At his high school, he faces physical and antisemitic abuse from his jock peers, having the name ‘Bagelman’ spat at him. After finding himself with a girlfriend (who attempts to convert him to Christianity), and at her encouragement, Sammy films his peers at their traditional beach ‘Bunk Day’, with the film set to be screened at their prom. After mixed reception to the film, with most being delighted and a few being angered by their portrayal, an important lesson about the power and responsibility of the director’s gaze is learnt.
To point to any specific performance as a stand-out is impossible. From Michelle Williams’ moving performance as the troubled Mitzi, to Seth Rogan’s surprisingly grounded and serious Bennie (Burt’s best friend, who later begins an extramarital affair with Mitzi), to David Lynch’s spectacular cameo as the legendary Western director John Ford – Spielberg has assembled a simply stellar cast, wringing out the best performances possible from his performers (with Williams being likely tipped for a Best Actress nomination).
Without leaning into rose-tinted sentimentality, The Fabelmans is a touching semi-autobiographical glimpse into the cinematic journey of one of the greatest auteurs alive. With a runtime of 150 minutes, some may be tempted to call this indulgent, but for myself, this lengthy voyage is a very welcome piece of meta filmmaking. According to Rogan, the real-life closeness of the events depicted would often bring Spielberg to tears during production, and it’s no surprise. The maestro’s parents had long-nagged him to be put on the big screen, and it’s safe to say that he did them justice. The Fabelmans is as much a loving tribute to his family as it is to cinephilia.
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