Watching a young Steven Spielberg fall in love with movies: NPR


Young Sammy (Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord) experiences movie magic with his parents (Paul Dano and Michelle Williams) in The Fabelmans.

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Watching a young Steven Spielberg fall in love with movies: NPR

Young Sammy (Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord) experiences movie magic with his parents (Paul Dano and Michelle Williams) in The Fabelmans.

Universal images

Steven Spielberg has never been shy about incorporating elements of his family history into his films. He has spoken in interviews about how his father’s World War II stories shaped 1941 and Saving Private Ryanand how HEY and Dating of the Third Kind was born out of the pain of his parents’ divorce.

Now, at 75, Spielberg puts that divorce front and center in The Fabelmans, as well as many other details of his childhood and adolescence. This is her fourth collaboration with playwright and screenwriter Tony Kushner, and for the first time the two share a writing credit. The film is funny, melancholic and utterly wonderful. And if his portrayal of a young film prodigy borders on self-satisfied, that’s easily forgiven, considering who this prodigy grew up with. In the movie, his name is Sammy Fabelman and we first meet him as a youngster in 1950s New Jersey. From when his parents took him to see Cecil B. DeMille The greatest show on earthhe’s addicted and he knows he’s found his life’s calling.

Shooting in beautifully immersive long takes with his longtime cinematographer Janusz Kamiński, Spielberg lovingly recreates his earliest cinematic memories. We see Sammy making monster movies with his younger sisters, using ketchup as fake blood. Later, as a teenager in the early 60s, Sammy, played by the seductive Gabriel LaBelle, would make some stunning shorts, including a western and a war movie.

Filmmaking offers Sammy some stability amid the turmoil in his family life. His kindhearted father, Burt, played with painful restraint by Paul Dano, is an electrical engineer whose job in the booming computer industry keeps him and his family moving over the years from New Jersey to Phoenix, Arizona, for Northern California.

All of these changes weigh heavily on Sammy’s free-spirited mother, Mitzi, played by Michelle Williams in an emotionally vibrant and ultimately devastating performance. Williams shows us the radiance and restlessness of Mitzi, but also his deep regret at having sacrificed a career as a concert pianist to raise his family. Mitzi urges Sammy to pursue his dreams as a filmmaker. A close family friend, Bennie, played by Seth Rogen, proves equally encouraging. But Sammy’s dad wants him to do something more hands-on, like IT or engineering.

This tension is brilliantly articulated by Sammy’s great-uncle, Boris, who drops by for an unexpected visit one day. Played by a wonderful Judd Hirsch, Boris, a former circus performer and silent film actor, tells Sammy the cost of an artistic life, warning: “Art will give you crowns in heaven and laurels on earth, but also, it will tear your heart. Art is not a game! Art is as dangerous as a lion’s mouth.

Sammy loves making movies, partly because it gives him the illusion of control. As he films with an 8mm camera and cuts scenes together by hand, he discovers he can bend reality to his will and even overcome his fears and insecurities. It sounds like a remarkably honest confession coming from Spielberg, who has often been criticized by critics for being overly manipulative, for indulging in easy sentimentality and avoiding harder questions.

But what makes The Fabelmans so moving is that he knows there’s more to movies than just pretending. Over time, Sammy learns that a camera can see things the human eye misses, that it can reveal painful secrets. One summer, he films a family camping trip and what happens next has serious repercussions for his parents and siblings. Spielberg unpacks these revelations in a nearly wordless sequence that ranks among the most lyrical films of his career. It’s heartbreaking to watch his young alter ego come to terms with the truth about who his parents are, learn to forgive them, and embrace the good they both instilled in him.

As sad as his family portrait may be, The Fabelmans is also Spielberg’s funniest film in quite some time; he has a winning and exuberant spirit. Sure, there are overly broad comedic moments in Sammy’s high school, where he gets to know his first love and butt heads with anti-Semitic jocks, but even those scenes prove irresistible. It’s just as satisfying here as it is in other Spielberg movies like Duel and The Raiders of the Lost Ark to see the bullies get their reward. It’s also satisfying to see young Sammy come face-to-face with one of his personal cinematic heroes in a moment that’s just too good to waste.

Did it all really happen that way? It is doubtful; like all great storytellers, Spielberg knows the value of artifice and embellishment. But again and again in The Fabelmanshe uses his dazzling mastery of the medium to arrive at startling new depths of emotional truth.


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