One-line review: Your heart is the only compass you need to navigate through life. 

The audience broke into spontaneous applause both times I watched The Fabelmans. And they couldn’t have been more different each time; senior citizens the first time and young New Yorkers the second time. That’s the beauty of Steven Speilberg’s autobiographical film, which he co-wrote with playwright and frequent collaborator Tony Kushner. 

At its core, the film is an ode to cinema. Movies can unite families even as they are coming apart and sustain children in broken homes. Or, as in Spielberg’s case, making movies are effective weapons against bullying, anti-Semitism, and low self-esteem. 

The film is a mostly true account of Speilberg’s growing-up years told through the lives of the fictional Fablemans, a middle-class Jewish family with the engineer father Burt (Paul Dano), artistic and child woman mom, Mitzi (Michelle Williams), Sammy (aka Spielberg) and his three younger sisters. Sammy discovers the magic of movies very young when his parents take him to watch the classic “The Greatest Show on Earth,” much against his wishes (he is terrified of this new contraption). Spielberg hits the ground running with his casting of Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord as the young Sammy. His wide blue eyes leave no doubt that this kid is hooked for life. Sammy’s early access to a super eight camera, thanks to his engineer dad and his Peter Pan-like mother, who fiercely protects her son against any attempts to curb his enthusiasm, ignites the flame into a full-blown fire.  

Speilberg and Kushner intentionally stay away from a plot. Instead, they put together a collection of Sammy’s recollections from his childhood in no particular order like a collage. As a result, we are putty in the hands of the master conductor of emotions, Spielberg, who weaves us seamlessly in and out of a gamut of emotions.   

We see the Fabelmans’ marriage coming apart, although their union seems doomed from the start. An early scene shows us how different they are. When little Sammy is terrified of watching his first film, dad, Burt tries to demystify movies for Sammy by explaining they are make-believe. Mom, Mitzi (Michelle Williams), the artist, on the other hand, tries to lure little Sammy into watching the movie by making it sound magical.  

Goofy Uncle Benny (Seth Rogen), their father’s mentee, is another constant presence in their lives, a perfect foil to their serious father. We also see glimpses of a disapproving mother-in-law (Jeannie Berlin) who resents Mitzy’s parenting style and reminds the kids that Benny is not their real uncle, especially when she sees Mitzy and Benny’s closeness.    

Mitzy is clearly going through some issues, including an incompatible marriage and an unrealized piano career. Burt tries to understand her as best as he can, but they are as different as chalk and cheese. Their unhappiness magnifies when Burt moves to California to work for IBM. Benny cannot join them, and the kids, especially Sammy find themselves in an anti-semitic environment.   

Film making is Sammy’s respite and redemption, his chance to be seen and even get back at his bullies. It allows him to tide over his parent’s inevitable breakup and his own break up under unceremonious circumstances.  

The film doesn’t resolve anything for Sammy, but we know he’s been through his rites of passage and will be just fine because his heart is in the right place. Even the others will eventually be fine because even the painful decisions have been made from the heart. That’s the film’s central and heartwarming (pun intended) message. 

Watching the Fabelmans is an experience. The script has the right balance of seriousness and funny, including a sermon on art by Sammy’s uncle (Judd Hirsh in a scene-stealing performance). As a result, the film meanders like a river on course. Seth Rogen rightly points out that naming the film the Fabelmans and not the Spielbergs is a stroke of genius because it allows the audience to connect with this everyday family rather than being awed by the Spielberg aura. 

The film mostly has dark tones and is shot indoors, which makes the light scenes, like the beach scenes, cathartic. In the last scene where Sammy shows his beach film to the class, Spielberg has to deliver since it’s a build-up to Sammy’s redemption and proof of our faith in his talent, and boy, does he deliver. The scenes are so buoyant and youthful that it’s hard to believe it is written and shot by a seventy-five-year-old man. The scene of a heartbroken Sammy (he’s just been dumped) slumped down while the rest of his class erupts on seeing the movie is painfully funny.     

Michele Williams gives this film about following your dreams, its dreamy quality, with her lightfooted yet self-assured performance. She’s firm yet delicate, and you know why her kids love her fiercely despite her choices that uproot the family.  Gabrielle Labelle shines as the polite yet irreverent Sammy. Despite generally being the bullied and confused kid, you see him coming alive and confident when filming. The filming scenes with his buddies are the most joyous and proof that Spielberg is still a boy at heart. 

Paul Dano is stuck with a one-dimensional boring character and cannot make us feel for him; same with Seth Rogen. They are both adequate but don’t move us like the others. It is good to see Julia Butters going places as Sammy’s studious sister after her star turn in Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Spielberg allows her to shine with some good lines. Chloe East as Sammy’s devout Christian yet hard-as-nails girlfriend has the toughest role. East’s character on paper must have looked caricaturish with her over-the-top love for Jesus that doesn’t match her actions, but East knocks it out of the park, delivering some of the best laughs for the film. 

Much has been made of David Lynch’s surprise turn as John Ford. Apparently, it took a long time to convince him, and one can see why. He’s already done a heightened version of the character in the fantabulous Louis CK series. But then, one can never have enough of David Lynch.     

The Fabelmans is a confident labor of love. Speilberg is clearly following his heart with the scene choices, the film’s meandering pace, and the attention paid to some characters like the grandmas. But this is Speilberg’s story to tell, an authorized biography for his legion of fans worldwide.         

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