Spielberg’s Deeply Personal Love Letter to the Magic of the Movies.


It’s the 1950s and Mitzi and Burt Fabelman are taking their young son, Sammy, to his first-ever movie. Sammy’s a little scared and his parents do their best to reassure him. Dad describes the physical process of how the frames are projected onto the screen at 24fps and our brains interpret the flickering images as motion. He uses the phrase ‘persistence of vision’ as if that’s something young Sammy should care about. Mom simply describes the movie as a dream you never forget. Over the course of the movie, Sammy will grow into a young man who discovers his own passion for moviemaking. As he pursues his art and craft, he will find himself in a tug of war between these two poles.

Burt (Paul Dano) is a whiz with computers. He and his best friend, Benny (Seth Rogen), are engineers, designing new database systems, and Burt’s work is getting recognized by some of the top tech firms in the country. This requires him to uproot and move his family across the country, first to Phoenix and then later to northern California. Mitzi (Michelle Williams) is a trained pianist. Although she gets the occasional gig playing on the television, she has mostly subsumed her art for the sake of raising her family.

And in between them is Sammy, played as a teenager and then young adult by Gabrielle LaBelle. Sammy learns early on that he can achieve a sense of control over his life through the act of recording and ordering it through editing. It is through his movies that he uncovers a terrible secret that can threaten to blow the family apart, but it is also his way of making sense of the world around him. He comes to fear the truths the camera can reveal, but he can never truly let his art go.

The events depicted in The Fabelmans are loosely based on real-life events that occurred during Steven Spielberg’s own childhood. Viewers familiar with Spielberg’s story (having, say, just watched the documentary Spielberg on HBO, for instance) will recognize several of the anecdotes playing out. Young Sammy uses his sisters as guinea pigs for his earliest movies, scaring them with pop-up skeletons hidden in the closets. Teen Sammy makes a World War II epic, featuring clever ‘special effects’ such as small see-saws concealed in the dirt to simulate gunfire. Mitzi, in a fit of loneliness impulsively buys a monkey and makes an already chaotic home life even more so. I don’t know if the scene where Mitzi bundles the kids into a car and goes tornado chasing actually happened or not, but perhaps it could have.

This, of course, makes The Fabelmans Spielberg’s most personal project since Close Encounters of the Third Kind. That previous film similarly depicted the breakdown of a family but placed it in the context of an extra-terrestrial visitation. The Fabelmans does not contain such flights of fancy, being a straight coming-of-age melodrama. Even in his filmmaking style, Spielberg seems to have opted for a less frenetic approach than usual. He is a very kinetic filmmaker, his cameras swoop one way, his actors move the other. While its too much to say he’s locked down here, he takes a much more restrained approach. Spielberg the showman takes a back seat to the actors, letting their performances take center stage.

And every performance in this movie is pitched just right, even down to the short but effective scenes with Judd Hirsch, as Boris, Sammy’s lion taming great-uncle, and David Lynch as famed director John Ford. Both men give Sammy guidance on the nature of art, albeit in very different ways.

Spielberg exploded onto the scene with his made-for-television movie Duel in 1971. Since then, he has remained consistently one of the most exciting and energetic filmmakers, working in a variety of genres and tackling a huge range of subject matter. With The Fabelmans he turns his camera back onto himself and the family life that shaped him. It is a deeply personal ode to Spielberg’s parents. It is also his love letter to the magic of the movies.