Film Review: “The Fabelmans” – An Exercise in Forgiveness – Rough Draft Atlanta – Reporter Newspapers + Atlanta Intown | Wonder Mind Kids

“The Fabelmans,” Merie Weismiller Wallace/Universal Pictures and Amblin Entertainment

Towards the end of The Fabelmans, Sammy Fabelman (Gabriel LaBelle) directs a film that causes a stir when it premieres at the prom.

The short film about the graduation day of his high school with Logan (Samrechner), the most popular boy in the school, plays the lead role. Sammy highlights all aspects of Logan that give him his popularity. His good looks and athletic ability are on display as he dominates volleyball and easily wins a beach race. But Sammy’s film touches on something else. Logan’s often hidden sensitive side unfolds through Sammy’s keen eye. There’s a girl, you know – a girl that Logan is badly hurt and a girl that he wants to win back. The audience takes in this subtle love story and sighs in desperation as the smile slowly fades from Logan’s eyes whenever he catches sight of her, the jock for all to see. Sammy capitalizes on Logan’s personality but also breaks it up, showing the school that there’s more to Logan than meets the eye.

Except that Logan really doesn’t have much else to offer – at least not for Sammy. For the past few months, Logan has been non-stop bullying, beating and making life miserable for Sammy. The on-screen version of Logan is not the version Sammy deals with in real life, and Logan knows that. He later confronts Sammy in a fit of rage. Why would Sammy crystallize his image this way? Why would Sammy take Logan – someone who caused him immense pain – and turn him into Paul Newman?

“I wanted you to be nice to me for five minutes,” Sammy yells when Logan demands an answer. A pause – “Or I did it to make my film better. I don’t know.” There’s a power in filmmaking that Sammy appeals to, an ability to completely control the outcome no matter what the real-life situation might be.

The Fabelmans, Steven Spielberg’s new semi-autobiographical film, is an exploration of this sense of control and a film that is as interested in reinforcing the myths we tell ourselves through filmmaking as in debunking them. Based on Speilberg’s childhood and the beginning of his love of cinema, the film draws heavily on his troubled relationship with his parents and their complex relationship with each other (the couple divorced late in his teens, and his mother married his father’s good friend). Even if you don’t know the director’s personal life well, it probably doesn’t surprise you that he’s a child of divorce — reluctant or separated parents feature throughout his work, from Dee Wallace’s single mother on ET to Sam Neill’s opposition paternity in Jurassic Park.

In his nearly 50-year career, Spielberg’s work has created a myth about himself as a filmmaker, a myth that The Fabelmans both illuminates and challenges. From his meticulous, exhilarating cinematography to his humane performances, Spielberg’s whole soul is present on this screen. Seeing a master use his directing skills to delve into the essence of the power of film and its role in his life makes for one of the best films of the year.

Spielberg draws almost entirely from his own life – Sammy serves as his deputy, while Michelle Williams and Paul Dano take on the roles of his parents, here named Mitzi and Burt. Similar to Spielberg, Sammy has three younger sisters. Similar to Spielberg, he moves from New Jersey to California via Arizona and makes amateur films on the side. And much like Spielberg, Sammy was obsessed with film from a young age.

The Fabelmans begins with a young Sammy (Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord) watching his very first film, 1952’s The Greatest Show on Earth. At first he doesn’t want to go inside for fear of the larger-than-life images looming over him. This moment is captured at the level of little Sammy, the camera crops the adults at the waist and makes us live in that palpable fear of the giant that is so omnipresent for a child. One by one, his parents kneel and come into view. His father tries to reassure him by describing the mechanics behind the images he will see, how the moving image is actually made up of thousands of still images, how these tiny images are projected large onto a screen. His mother takes the opposite approach—”Movies are dreams you never forget,” she tells him, solidifying one of the central tensions of family and film—science versus art, rational versus emotional.

As a famous scene of a train crashing into a car is played on this screen, the crowd around Sammy gasps in horror. But not Sammy. The film jumps back and forth between footage from Cecil B. DeMille’s film and a close-up looking up at Sammy’s face. As the crowd gasps and shields their eyes, Sammy leans in closer without blinking, mesmerized by the screen. An obsession is born. When he receives a model train set for Hanukkah, Sammy decides to make his own film to recreate the crash on his own terms. Much like he will later do with Logan in the Senior Ditch Day film, he longs to dictate the outcome.

For Sammy, filmmaking becomes an exercise in control, something he rarely has in his own life. Throughout the film, Spielberg explores this need for control, both in Sammy on screen and in his construction of the film itself. During a sequence in which Sammy’s parents announce their separation to the children, Sammy imagines that he is directing the moment . He distances himself from reality, places an imaginary camera between himself and the scenery and imagines it as a cinematic experience. For Sammy, it’s an attempt to take some power out of a painful moment. In a way, Spielberg does exactly the same thing with the entire film. But instead of separating from reality, he dives back into it – this time with the gift of context.

As Sammy’s parents, Williams and Dano represent the core of Spielberg’s exploration, and both deliver truly insightful performances that can only unfold in hindsight. So many Spielberg films deal with divorce or absent parents in a place of anger and sadness, and while there’s a lot to tell in The Fabelmans, it’s also an exercise in forgiveness, with tenderness permeating every shot. As Mitzi, Williams is endlessly seductive, but her charm has a fragility that buzzes and bursts just under her skin to get out. In a scene where Sammy is telling his mother that he found out about her relationship with his father’s boyfriend, Benny (Seth Rogen), Spielberg crafts the moment from a place of absolution that I can’t imagine that he would have had the wherewithal as a teenager. Mitzi falls to her knees at Sammy’s feet, and Williams is tiny as a child as she begs his forgiveness, which he readily grants.

Spielberg gives as much to his father as he does to his mother. As Burt, Dano is the opposite force in this equation – the engineer, the imposing father who considers Sammy’s filmmaking purely a hobby. It would be so easy to turn this character into a tired trope. But Dano is so quietly adorable. In ensemble scenes, he delivers moment after moment that would have remained on the periphery in the hands of a less knowledgeable director. Every glance – be it at his wife, his son, his best friend – is linked to the specific emotion that the moment requires, but always underscored by a deep-rooted affection. While Sammy might not always get to see it in the film, Spielberg certainly recognizes it now.

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