Family in focus
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Family in focus

Semi-autobiographical The Fabelmans is Steven Spielberg's most personal project to date

Family in focus
A scene from The Fabelmans.

The Oscars is coming up soon. And while it should be an exciting time for any film lover, I can't help but feel a bit let down by this year's nominations, especially for the Best Picture category. I didn't particularly like the flashy biopic Elvis and I personally thought Everything Everywhere All At Once was way, way overrated. And I have no clue how Top Gun: Maverick managed to get nominated for best movie of the year. So I had kind of lost interest in this year's awards -- until I recently had a chance to watch another nominee, The Fabelmans, the latest film by Steven Spielberg. Suddenly my interest returned.

After nearly five decades of filmmaking, Spielberg has become a household name, or brand if you will, like Coca Cola or Adidas. It's safe to say that many people have been greatly affected by landmark movies like Jaws (1975), Close Encounters Of The Third Kind (1977), Raiders Of The Lost Ark (1981), Jurassic Park (1993), Schindler's List (1993), Saving Private Ryan (1998), and the list goes on. While the films vary in tone and intent, with each you could be assured of a powerful and emphatic cinema experience. But The Fabelmans is a different kind of film conveying a different kind of feeling. It's one of the most intimate and most personal ever seen from the director.

The Fabelmans is basically a semi-autobiographical story loosely based on Spielberg's upbringing, from a youth discovering movies, then developing a love of filmmaking, up to getting his first big opportunity, all coinciding with his tumultuous family life. However, the names and some of the elements had to be altered for entertainment and dramatic purposes. But in any case, the film is part love letter to cinema and part sweeping coming-of-age drama that's both amusing and emotionally impactful. Written by Spielberg and Tony Kushner and directed by Spielberg, The Fabelmans is set in the post-World War II era. Spielberg's avatar in the film is Sammy Fabelman (Gabriel LaBelle), a young boy who aspires to become a filmmaker. As he reaches adolescence, he soon discovers a shattering family secret and explores how the power of film can help him see the truth. We track his early years in New Jersey, then to when his family moved to Arizona, and eventually to his time in California which culminates with Sammy getting his first work in the movie industry.

The technical aspects of The Fabelmans including cinematography are of top-notch quality. As to story, the family dynamics in the film are extremely complex. The movie works best when depicting what it's like to be a young child torn between two parents of highly dissimilar sensibilities: one is interested in technology, the other in art and music. We see how both massively influence the kind of young man the boy would become. The script is insightful and balanced. I especially liked how Spielberg and Kushner used humour to sometimes break tension without minimising the gravity of a situation.

Gabriel LaBelle as Sammy Fabelman. (Photos: Universal Pictures)

There's an infectious sense of joy and discovery as Sammy learns how to shoot 8mm film and how to edit it using the technology of the times (the 1950s and 60s), and as he learns how to employ certain rudimentary, almost prehistoric special effects in his movies. It's basically a process of making movies with his friends for fun but with the thrill of projects eventually being presented to large audiences. I doubt I'm the only person who watches this movie and sees a reflection of themself in young Sammy. If you have any interest in art, and especially filmmaking in general, you'll understand the feeling. It's going to click with you.

Performance-wise, we have Paul Dano who plays Burt, a loving but stern father. You see his methodical, maths-and-science way of thinking prevents him from understanding what his son wants to do, and it creates a lot of really great scenes. Michelle Williams is superb as always, here as Sammy's mother Mitzi. Likewise magnificent is LaBelle, a remarkable young talent. The actor captures Sammy's wide-eyed sense of wonder about film, for instance in how the young Fabelman always runs to his camera for refuge whenever times get tough. It all comes off as genuine and likeable and you can't help but root for the guy.

Overall, I really enjoyed seeing this story of how chasing your dreams can be so rewarding when you have the support of loved ones, because family can be both a gift and a curse sometimes. It's great to see how the film captures the elements of Spielberg's life and how those moments shaped him in becoming one of the greatest storytellers of all time. The Fabelmans is an incredible declaration of love to film and to the art and power of movies. I really hope it will take home some awards at this year's Oscars.

Michelle Williams in The Fabelmans

  • The Fabelmans
  • Starring Gabriel LaBelle, Michelle Williams, Paul Dano
  • Directed by Steven Spielberg
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