By Marc S. Sanders
Often, coming-of-age stories are narrated through the eyes of the child on the cusp of becoming a teenager or a grown up. It’s important you realize that I say through the eyes, however. It’s what the protagonist observes that allows him or her to appreciate, and comprehend. Steven Spielberg will tell you he came of age by learning how to make movies. It stands to reason however, that he did not come of age by looking with just his eyes, but rather with his 8mm and 16mm cameras. The Fabelmans is a fictionalized, loose interpretation of how the celebrated filmmaker transitioned from adolescence into young adulthood with dreams of telling stories with movie making inventiveness.
Sammy Fabelman (Gabriel LaBelle, the older version; Mateo Zoryan, the younger version – both performances are magnificent) is escorted for the first time to the movies by his parents Mitzi and Burt (Michelle Williams and Paul Dano) on a wintery New Jersey night in 1952, where he sees The Greatest Show On Earth. For eight year old Sammy, what starts out as nervous fear of what to expect in a dark theater with a giant screen turns into exhilaration as a car does a head on collision with a locomotive. Shortly thereafter, a series of eight Channukah gifts assemble a Lionel train set for Sammy. It’s exciting to see it go around on an oval track. It’s more electrifying to preserve it on film with a toy car driven by a Mordecai figurine crash right into the steam engine and the boxcars hitched to it. That was Mitzi’s idea to capture it on film. That way Sammy can get a thrill out of watching the accident over and over again without causing any further damage.
Sammy only progresses from there. When Burt gets a job promotion, the family moves to Arizona. The desert allows a teenage Sammy to continue with his love of filmmaking by shooting his family during the cross country trek and then making westerns and war films with his Scout Troop pals as the actors. He sets up tracking shots by propping his camera on a baby carriage rolling along cardboard laid out on the ground. Ketchup becomes blood. Sammy is even inventive enough to poke holes in the actual film strip at precise moments when his sheriff and outlaws fire their six shooters. Now it really looks like the cowboys are shooting real rounds of gunfire. Mom and dad, his sisters, his teachers, and friends are all impressed.
His Uncle Bennie (Seth Rogen) is also dazzled by Sammy’s natural talent. Bennie is Burt’s best friend and co-worker, and per Mitzi’s insistence he moves to Arizona with the family. By use of his camera and editing machine, Sammy will soon learn that Bennie actually means more to Mitzi than he does to Burt.
With a script that Spielberg constructed with Tony Kushner, the director/writer depicts a kid, much like he was, who expressed his honesty and learned the truth about the people around him when his projector was on. The camera doesn’t lie, ever. A motion picture camera will even hold on to the final beats of a person’s pulse before they finally expire. That one moment in time where there’s life and then suddenly there’s death can be eternalized on film, forever. It’s through this storytelling device that allows The Fabelmans to stand apart from other coming-of-age films like Rebel Without A Cause or Splendor In The Grass or any of the John Hughes brat pack films. The childlike quality yearning for adventure and fantasy shines through with Sammy’s westerns or John Wayne inspired war pictures. Sammy also realizes though that he can pick up on real life and emotion with his 8mm, like on a family camping trip.
Michelle Williams gives an outstanding, sometimes ethereal performance. It’s real. She’s not doing fantasy. Yet, she lives for the fantasy and adventure. I recall a well known anecdote of Spielberg where he described in his youth, his father woke up the family in the middle of the night to watch the skies for a meteor shower. (Watch The Skies was the original title for his film Close Encounters Of The Third Kind.) In The Fabelmans, Mitzi enthusiastically takes her children in the car to pursue a tornado. Later moments will have her dancing freely in her nighty in front of the car headlights while the family is camping; uncaring over the fact that her dress is see through. Sammy will notice how awkward his father Burt feels, while at the same time seeing how enamored Bennie is at the sight. Williams has a beautiful balance though of a woman trying her best to appear happy and collected for the sake of her children and husband, but not living the story she wants. This will influence Sammy as he maps out his own future. He’ll live the life he wants. Learning the merits of algebra will never hinder his destiny to make movies.
Later occurrences will show evidence as to how well Sammy can capture reality with his camera. Following a series of bullying and antisemitic teasing after the family transitions to northern California, Sammy is welcomed to shoot the senior ditch day at the beach. A telling moment occurs when the film is shown at the prom. The taller bully is overwhelmed by how championed he’s depicted in the film. He’s bordering on furious with Sammy, though. The mean kid knows he’s cruel to the scrawnier, Jewish Sammy, and it immediately eats away at him with guilt over his past treatment. Sammy’s film has changed and disrupted this kid. Another kid bully is shown to look like the jerk he is and nothing else. He walks alone on the beach. He’s not an athlete. He’s nothing but a no talent, unlikable antisemitic jerk. This kid is also changed because now he can see what he truly is as the viewer looking at his own cruel behavior shown on film for the whole world to see. Movies will bring out what we harbor deep down, inside.
Ironically, Sammy is so well versed with camera work and follow up editing that he is practically unaware of how durable his theme of honesty through the lens truly is. What Sammy captures comes without even trying and it sends a raw emotion to the viewer, whether it’s a mean-spirited bully or even his own mother watching.
Steven Spielberg could never be anything else except a movie maker. Yet, after over five decades he’s still introducing audiences to new kinds of accomplishments. He started as a director with adventure and fantasy on his mind with the likes of monster trucks, killer sharks as well as swashbuckling treasure seeking and visitors from outer space. Later, he had to reinvent his craft and think outside his fanciful dreams to show brutality and hope through horrifying moments in history like the abuses endured by black southern plantation dwellers, slavery, the Holocaust and the unglamorized harshness of war, political unrest, and terrorism. Further on, he carried out the romance of stage musical performance and even learned to poke fun at his own past accomplishments.
In the short period of time that we get to know Sammy Fabelman, we see transfers of perspective in this young boy’s outlook through a camera. Sammy goes from making silly mummy monsters of his sisters to intimate hand holding shared by his unhappy mother and the man she truly loves, a man who is not his father.
Whether he is watching his own films, or it is his friends, or his mother, his father or even his tormentors at school, Sammy realizes that a film will always do one thing and never falter away from that one thing. His camera will always, always, always tell the truth.
Thankfully, a truly inspired epilogue moment, which left me with a big, enthusiastic grin, has Sammy still learning that as frank as his filmmaking may be, it’s important that it is also never boring. I don’t think I have ever been bored with a movie made by Steven Spielberg.