Arguably, the most important film director of the last fifty years, Steven Spielberg has created on origin story for himself. This autobiographical, but supposedly fictional story, shows us the inspirations and the learning curve that Spielberg encountered on his journey to fame and cinema excellence. The frequent theme in his movies of an absent father or parents divided, shows up in his own narrative, and at times it is inspiring while being simultaneously frustrating. Oh yeah, you get to enjoy the hypnotic effect that movies can have on you both by watching the Spielberg stand in, but also by simply being in a theater to experience this.
Let’s begin by complimenting the performers in this film. The main young actor playing the Spielberg based Sam Fabelman, is Gabriel LaBelle, and he sure looks like a doppelganger for a young Steven. Every time he has the camera in front of his face, making one of those childhood created movies, you can see the future creator of “Jaws”, “Saving Private Ryan” and Jurassic Park” at work. Casting is everything for a part like this and whoever found this young man deserves a bonus. We may not have the same secure visual references for his parents, but Paul Dano as the father and Michelle Williams as the mother, are completely believable. Williams has the meatier role and she runs with it. There has been talk that she would walk away with the Academy Award if she was being promoted as a supporting actress, but that would be such a misclassification of her contribution to the film, that it would be the equivalent of saying Brando was a supporting actor in “The Godfather”. Regardless of screen time, this is the central character in the film. Even the Spielberg character plays second fiddle to the mother in most of the story. Judd Hirsh arrives for one extended sequence and walks off with the picture in five minutes of screen time. Seth Rogan plays it straight as a dramatic actor, although the character has light moments, and he also is quite good. In the final moments of the film, we get one more great performance from an actor in a single scene, but I won’t spoil it for you. When the identity of the actor dawns on you, you will laugh and be amazed.
For most film buffs, the key parts of the story will center around young Sammy’s movies. The montage of his sisters and friend, role playing in his pre-teen and teen productions is almost enough to satisfy, but then we get extended moments in the making of his war epic, the filming of a family picnic and his film project presented at the prom, that also add to the juice that we movie fans crave. The editing, special effects and camera tricks show us that he is a great story teller, but as we see him making his film about his Mom, we get to see how he learns to put heart into his stories. Sammy (Spielberg) learns that it is not just technique that makes a movie work. The audience needs an emotional investment, and we actually see him learning that as the movie unwinds.
Things in the film get a little tricky when confronting the Jewish heritage of our hero. No doubt there were times in his life when bigots swarmed but given the experiences of his earlier schools, boy scouts and neighbors, these Aryan idiots in Northern California seem like bad guys issued by Central Casting. The fact that a cute Christian girl takes a distinct interest in him also belies the notion that anti-Semitism ruled the school. That one of his antagonists has a moment of moral crisis after being presented as the equivalent of a Greek God at their High School in Sammy’s film, is confusing. The closest explanation I could come up with in my own head was that this High School Star is being confronted by his apex moment, and it simply underlines that it is all downhill from here on. I sort of like the idea that the film of student activities will alter people’s perspectives, but it was a little fuzzy how this ended up benefitting Sammy. It does end up with a pretty funny punchline however, which works because we are watching this movie when it gets delivered.
Not to give anything away, but the film ends on a promising note and a terrific scene. The brusque advice Sammy gets from a legendary film director, is quickly applied in a manner that allows the audience to laugh and see a technique at work. Director Spielberg playfully lets us in on the fact that he is still influenced by the films he saw in his youth and the lessons he was taught as a teen. The last sequence is where we get that surprise I mentioned earlier and it is a great five minutes of film. Maybe this will not rank with his great adventure films, but when the list of dramas made by Spielberg is presented, “The Fabelmans” will probably be somewhere near the top.