Amblin Entertainment, 2022
Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner
📷 : Used with permission, Edgar Ascensão (https://edgarascensao.bigcartel.com)
Movies and TV shows with a lot of dialog
Movies and TV shows with heart, positive vibes, and warm messages
Some people might question if this film fits in the indie sector and should instead be viewed as a mainstream drama/biopic. This is fair I suppose, given that it was distributed in big theaters, shown on big screens, is connected to Steven Spielberg, and oh, is about Steven Spielberg himself – arguably one of the greatest film directors to ever grace a studio lot. Still though, I would argue that The Fabelmans is nonetheless a story; a small, tight, very personal story kneaded, molded, and lightly shaped, yet shaped perfectly in the indie tradition. This element, which is at the very center, the very origin of indie film’s birth about 30 years ago, makes The Fabelmans a quintessential indie film.
The Fabelmans is the coming-of-age story about Sam “Sammy,” the oldest child and only boy in a family of four siblings, headed by Burt Fabelman, a brilliant and ambitious computer engineer, and Mitzi Fabelman, a talented but eccentric classical pianist. In addition to the family of six is the ever-present Benny Loewy, the seventh wheel played by Seth Rogen. Burt’s best friend and colleague, “Uncle Benny” joins the family for picnics, camping trips, and seemingly every dinner at the Fabelman home. After a while, I began to ask, why is he always there? Doesn’t he have a family? Amid raucous humor over dinner one night, even Grandma Fabelman chimes, “Natalie, he is not your uncle!” “He is only always here because he works for my son.”
Initially set in New Jersey, the movie opens with Burt and Mitzi cajoling 7-year-old Sammy into going into the movie theater with them, insisting he will love it and that the movie is not real but just “photographs that move past faster than your brain can let go of them [tricking] us into believing the motionless pictures are moving.” Sammy relents and he is both mesmerized by what he sees and forever hooked.
Played by Gabriel LaBelle (Dead Shack, The Predator), Sammy, now a teenager, makes movies with his friends in period clothing on authentic-looking sets, and presents the films at school functions. He is serious about movie-making and aspires to do it for a career.
Sammy is very close to his non-traditional but sometimes quirky mother, played by Michelle Williams (Manchester by the Sea, My Week with Marilyn). A warm and loving mother, Mitzi is always seemingly starving to be the center of attention. She dances for them on camping trips, gets a monkey for a pet, and serves nightly dinner on paper plates with plastic utensils atop a paper tablecloth. There is a method to her madness though, and what seems like eccentricity is not necessarily so.
Burt, played by Paul Dano (There Will Be Blood, Love & Mercy), views Sammy’s movie-making as a hobby and lovingly insists he should focus on doing “real work” that leads to a “real career,” like becoming an engineer. It is not uncommon for parents to impose their own career aspirations on their kids or to want their kids to follow in their footsteps. Unless encouraged to do so, children who go their own way are often viewed as being selfish. Indeed, when Mitzi loses a loved one, Burt asks Sammy to put off his “hobby” to make a film that would make his mother happy. The 16-year-old pushes back on this, “Dad, I have 40 people coming tomorrow …” Calling him “selfish,” Burt insists and then pleads for his help in making his mother happy. This, however, proves to be a mistake.
As Sammy relents and splices clips for a movie that will “make his mother happy,” he stumbles on a pattern of scenes he did not want to see that tell a story he did not want to know. Together, they turn his peace of mind and sense of security on their heads, shifting the teenager’s world as if tectonic plates are suddenly moving underneath his feet. For someone who takes such joy in putting together a film for other people’s enjoyment, he was faced for the first time with making a movie he could not even enjoy himself. He is forced to tell a story that fits an occasion but leaves out the truth.
The Fabelmans shows how Sammy uses his moviemaking to communicate and connect. Despite the antisemitic bullying he experiences in his Arizona high school, he uses his camera to show his fellow students who they were and what they looked like, as if perhaps seeing themselves could affect a change within them. In this way, the film hints at the transformative power of motion pictures. That how we see ourselves represented on screen, including our interactions with one another, teaches us something about who we are, who we can — or what we want to be.
In The Fabelmans, Sammy’s film softens stances, enhances understanding, and breaks down barriers – but not in every case. When he is confronted by a guilt-ridden bully, he says “All I did was hold the camera and it saw what it saw,” while another bully simply wanted to beat the hell out of him. ‘Filming only what the camera saw’ is an oversimplification though. As was revealed in the movie for his mother, a film tells whatever story the filmmaker wants to tell, must tell to fit a moment or an occasion. A cinematic presentation does not just appear on its own; it does indeed have a subjective component. Having said this though, clips of unguarded moments captured on film can reveal a deep, authentic story. And The Fabelmans is a deeply personal one that must have been very difficult to tell.
The Fabelmans spans the early-1950s through late 1960s and covers the family’s move from the East Coast to the West Coast; yet, I was challenged to stumble upon any anachronisms in this 2 ½ hour-long movie. Apart from the men’s shoe-length rather than ankle-length pants, the colors, the furniture, the clocks, and even the style of the appliances were consistent with the period. For a quintessential and exquisitely developed indie film that might take you back — way back, and long for the old days, you might want to curl up to this one.