The Fabelmans (2022) ☆☆☆1/2 (3.5/4): So he goes for filmmaking…

Steven Spielberg’s latest film “The Fabelmans” is a gentle and intimate drama which is incidentally inspired by the early years of his life. While you may wonder how much the movie is overlapped with Spielberg’s childhood and adolescent years, the story itself will engage and touch you as a poignant tale of life, growth, family, and the art and power of filmmaking, and you may come to have some human understanding on what made Spielberg tick toward filmmaking.

The opening part of the film, which is set in 1952, begins with how a little young boy named Samuel Fabelman (Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord) became interested in filmmaking. When his Jewish parents Mitzi (Michelle Williams) and Burt (Paul Dano) take him to a local theater for watching Cecil B. DeMille’s “The Greatest Show on Earth” (1952) together, Samuel is not so eager about that, what do you know, he soon finds himself enthralled and impressed along with many audiences in the screening room – especially during the climactic part of the film.

When his father bought him a toy train set for a Jewish holiday present as he wanted, Samuel is certainly ready to use it for reproducing his favorite moment in “The Greatest Show on Earth”. His rather reckless attempt annoys his parents a bit, but Mitzi recognizes her son’s artistic spirit as a woman who once aspired to be a professional pianist, and she later buys him a film camera which leads him to his first step of filmmaking.

Meanwhile, Samuel’s family comes to have a big change. Because of his job opportunity involved with his professional field, Burt decides to leave their neighborhood in New Jersey to Phoenix, Arizona, and Mitzi is not so pleased about that. At least, Bennie (Seth Rogen, who is a masterstroke of casting if you remember when he once played along with Michelle Williams in Sarah Polley’s “Take This Waltz” (2012)), a jolly dude who has been Burt’s co-worker and best friend besides being an unofficial uncle to Mitzi and Burt’s children, also moves to Phoenix for working with him as before, and both she and her kids welcome that.

The story subsequently moves onto Samuel’s adolescent period in Arizona, where he, now played by Gabriel LaBelle, keeps pursuing his interested passion for filmmaking. Along with his fellow Boy Scout members, he often makes short films to be shown to not only his parents but also to his friends and neighbors, and he feels more confident as watching how much his audiences are enthralled by his little cinematic achievements. He enjoys having them under his artistic control, and that is another source of encouragement besides his mother’s constant support.

However, Samuel’s growing skill as a filmmaker also makes him more aware of whatever is going on between his parents. In a restrained but impactful scene which any admirer of Brian De Palma’s movies will appreciate, Samuel comes to notice a certain thing while looking over what he casually shot during a family camping trip, and he consequently feels angry and conflicted about that. As his great uncle Boris (Judd Hirsch, who is wonderful in his brief but memorable appearance) warned him before, art usually does hurt, and that makes him put aside his interest in filmmaking around the time when Burt decides to move to California for another good job opportunity.

During its third act, the movie becomes a bit more intense as its young hero struggles inside and outside his family. While he becomes more aware of the growing estrangement between his parents, Samuel is often bullied by other students in his high school just because of being Jewish, and then there accidentally comes a chance for little romance, which also reignites his passion toward filmmaking.

We all know how the story will eventually end, but the screenplay by Spielberg and his co-writer Tony Kushner keeps engaging us while doling one genuine complex human moment after another as usual. When he is hired to shoot a short film of students enjoying one summer day on the beach, Samuel is not so willing to do that at first, but his artistic instinct soon comes back, and he is reminded again of the artistic power of filmmaking when he later shows the result to his young audiences. When his parents announce their separation at last, Samuel and his siblings surely feel hurt, and that is followed by little bitter personal moment between him and one of his younger sisters (Julia Butters, who briefly but effortlessly stole the show from Leonardo DiCaprio in Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” (2019), has another solid moment to be added to her promising acting career).

As the center of the movie, Gabriel LaBelle and Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord are seamlessly connected in their acting, and they are supported well by two contrasting key performances in the film. As Samuel’s spirited but troubled mother, Michelle Williams gives another excellent performance to watch, and she is particularly terrific when her character becomes more honest with Samuel later in the story. On the opposite, Paul Dano subtle and tender in his low-key appearance, and he also has his own moments including the one where his character comes to accept Samuel’s artistic aspiration more than before.

On the whole, “The Fabelmans” is another stunning work from Spielberg, and I really love its many small but indelible moments including the sublime ending where one certain legendary filmmaker is played by another great filmmaker (I will let you see this little ingenious casting for yourself, by the way). Yes, we have been lucky to enjoy Spielberg movies during last five decades, and, again, he does not disappoint us at all.

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