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The Fabelmans

There’s a pivotal moment in Steven Spielberg’s beautiful new film THE FABELMANS that takes place in the Scottsdale of my youth. The long demolished Kachina Theatre looms in the background for over a minute. Sure, Camelback Mountain may be in the east instead of the west where it belongs in the scene, but the giant “Home of Cinerama” sign on the side of the building is right where it belongs, as is the Kachina logo.

My love of film was born in that theatre with its tiny lobby loaded with coming attraction posters, stills and doors to one of the biggest movie palaces I’ve ever sat it. My family saw “Airport” 8 times in six months at the Kachina in 1970 and I remember it vividly. Yes kids, movies really did used to play for that long in one theatre!

The care with which Spielberg places it in his memories as a budding filmmaker is just one of the personal connections that he lays bare in this stirring, revealing look at his family.

The Fabelmans are indeed the Spielbergs.

The film opens with young Sammy, the film’s obvious Steven, seeing his first movie, DeMille’s “Greatest Show on Earth”. The major train accident at the conclusion of that film rivets Sammy, who immediately recreates it with his toy train set. When his mom suggests he film the toy train crash once and then relive it on film, a future genius is born.

Mom Mitzi (Michelle Williams) is a free spirit, a talented concert pianist and a dreamer, inspiring young Sammy from his earliest youth to embrace his dreams. Dad Burt (Paul Dano) is a brilliant engineer, looking at life in exact numbers, black & white. Mitzi and Burt are opposites but care deeply for each other and their family. Sammy and his sisters find balance in the ying and yang of their parents. Burt’s best friend Bennie (Seth Rogan in a terrific dramatic performance) seems to practically live with the Fabelmans and even makes the move with Burt when the family relocates to Phoenix for Burt’s work.

Teenage Sammy is now played by Gabriel Labelle in one of the most compelling and understated performances of the year. He stands toe-to-toe with Williams and Dano, who both deliver world class performances. I expect Oscar nominations all around come February, along with a best supporting actor nod for Judd Hirsch as Mitzi’s Uncle Boris, who arrives at the family’s doorstep spouting Yiddish and wisdom in equal measure. Boris had a life in show business and sees the same spark in Sammy. His speech about the conflict between family and a career in the movies is brilliant, just one of many moments crafted by Tony Kushner (Lincoln, Munich) and Spielberg with his first writing credit since “AI” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”.

Sammy’s love of film continues, and we watch as he assembles 40 fellow boy scouts to film a war movie. Hints of future Spielberg are everywhere and it’s obvious that he had a lot of fun recreating these pivotal moments from his teen years.

The film takes another turn as the Fabelmans relocate to northern California to follow Burt’s work. Relocating in a WASP town that Sammy calls “the land of the giants”, he’s a short Jewish kid facing bullying, violence and anti-semitism every day in the hallways.

Spielberg has said that the treatment he received over his religion turned his away from his faith for many years until his wife Kate Capshaw converted and he went on to make “Schindler’s List” and create the Shoah Foundation.

Over the course of two and a half hours that feels much shorter, Spielberg weaves together the story of his journey and desire as an artist with a deeply personal look at his family.

Williams and Labelle have some heart wrenching moments as a mother and son with secrets too heavy to bear. Dano has the more difficult role as the clenched, tightly wound Burt, but his silent moments around a campfire as Mitzi dances in the headlights of the family car are powerful, revealing every bit of what he feels but can’t express.

Longtime collaborator, director of photography Janusz Kaminski delivers a beautiful look, capturing the Arizona desert and California towns of the 50’s and 60’s, while composer John Williams provides one of his most quietly compelling scores.

The film closes with a legendary meeting between college dropout Sammy and one of his film director idols. Spielberg has said that every moment of the encounter was exactly as it appears in the film. The fact that he cast one of modern film’s most visionary directors in the role of that film legend is a bonus.

Spielberg saves one of his best directorial flashes for the film’s very last seconds, with a sly and hilarious reference to what that director taught him. He’s clearly taken that advice to heart, building one of the greatest film legacies of all-time. In those last seconds, Williams’ music score suddenly grows happy, echoing the soaring music he’d create for Spielberg’s blockbusters. The music and that visual gag combine for the perfect moment that Sammy becomes Spielberg.

With THE FABELMANS he delivers his most personal work. Quiet, dramatic, funny, and sometimes painful, it’s a moving tribute to what forged him, all the while delivering another Spielbergian experience at the movies. If that’s not a word, it ought to be.


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