Steven Spielberg’s latest, “The Fabelmans,” is a coming-of-age drama that beautifully draws the divide between one’s artistic endeavors and their strain on personal relations. Almost a semi-autobiographical work, this film follows young Sam Fabelman’s personal discovery of the movie camera, his love and fallout with it, and his eventual return to it, all while experiencing the joys and sorrows of growing up and a broken family. The creative talent of Spielberg is once again on full display here, along with great performances from the cast and storytelling that can successfully take audiences through the emotions being shown on screen.
The film begins in 1952 on the streets of New Jersey, as a young boy named Sam is taken to experience his first ever theater film viewing. Accompanied by his parents, Burt and Mitzi, young Sam does not look the most excited to sit in a huge, dark room and see tall shadows of people, as this is the idea, he has made of the experience from what he has heard from his parents. Burt and Mitzi talk the boy into clearing his mind of any fears, and together they walk in to watch “The Greatest Show on Earth.” The film and the train wreck scene, in particular, have an immediate impact on Sam, as the boy keeps remembering the scene. While this memory is at first slightly frightening, it soon turns into intrigue for him, and he intends to replicate the exact scene. That Hanukkah, he asks his parents for a train model set toy, and Sam soon starts to intentionally crash and derail the toy in a manner similar to the scene from “The Greatest Show on Earth.” The parents get to know of this soon, but the two of them have slightly opposing reactions to it. The father, Burt, is fearful that this was a sign of brash destructiveness in their son, who will grow up to be someone without respect for things around him if he is not stopped. However, the mother, Mitzi, sees this as young Sam being really moved by something he had recently experienced and as the boy’s effort to create something over which he could have control.
Working as an engineer, Burt had always been enthusiastic about movie cameras and always kept them around at his house. Mitzi is the one who suggests to Sam that he shoot a scene with his father’s camera once, replicating the train wreck scene, but without telling Burt anything about it. Sam does the same and is delighted by the experience. Over the next few months, he finds a real passion for the 8mm movie camera, continuously shooting scenes with his two younger sisters, Reggie and Natalie. But along with such new-found joy, Sam experiences sorrow in life soon when his father decides to take up a new job in Phoenix and moves the whole family with him to a new and different city to start their lives afresh.
After moving to Arizona, the family settles into the new place, and Sam makes new friends at school and as a Boy Scout. During all this time, he keeps up his immense interest in the movie camera and shooting scenes from films, and he also shares this interest with his close group of friends. Together with these friends, Sam shoots a Western scene heavily inspired by a film they watch together, John Ford’s “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.” At an age when the other boys are more interested in girls and trying to get close to them, Sam is engrossed with filmmaking, both shooting, and editing. It is clear that he studies and thinks deeply about filmmaking, too—from making use of dust to emulate flying sand in his Western films to punching holes in the film strip to create a quick flash on the screen, giving the impression that guns were actually being fired by the actors. Later on, Sam makes another short film of this sort, this time based on WWII, and it is now that he seems to find a knack for directing his actors too. His advice to his lead actor about a scene makes the real intended effect of it come out of the scene, and Sam shows more and more talent with the art. He convinces Burt to buy him better and more modern editing equipment as well, and he continues experimenting and learning with the form in his own way.
Much of Sam’s worries with life at this stage come from having to deal with the unusual scenes back at home at times. His father, Burt, was a genius in his own field of computer engineering, and the man always had a very scientific approach to life and actions. On the other hand, Mitzi had been an exceptionally talented pianist who had given up her passion after settling to be a mother. To Mitzi, things and decisions in life are much more erratic and sudden, as she understands life with a very different approach. She understands the creative side of her son and supports him from the very beginning, even though she seems to have internal troubles of her own at times. When Mitzi does something or thinks of doing something, she is almost as if in a trance, not giving too much thought to it. This can be perceived as a kind of habit that she has developed in life out of the frustrations that Mitzi sometimes has due to choosing her family over her talent and passion. At one point in the film, she loses her mother and is then visited by her uncle, Boris, who had had a colorful life working in circuses and then films. As the children sit interestedly listening to their great-uncle talk of his experiences as a lion tamer in the circus, there seems something deeper about Boris. This is evident later on when he shares a room with Sam and talks about the boy’s interest in filmmaking. It is the great-uncle who now first tells Sam about the clear divide between keeping one’s artistic genius intact and settling down for a calmer life with one’s personal relationships. To Boris, the two can never be negotiated with, and Sam, too, may keep realizing this at every step of the way. Mitzi had given up on her brilliant potential as a pianist by becoming a mother and housewife, but she could never really forget about this surrender. She had married Burt, who was a genius in his own way and who also struggled to find that balance between work and personal life. He had moved his entire family first from New Jersey to Phoenix and then later on from Phoenix to California in order to facilitate his own professional development. But by doing so, he had disrupted the lives of his children and his wife too, and yet there was nothing that could be done.
This difference between the parents is evident from the very beginning of “The Fabelmans,” as the two have different approaches to explaining films to Sam when he is afraid to step into the theater. Mitzi told the boy that films were like dreams, and this experience would be like having a good, happy dream, trying to get the boy excited about it. On the other hand, to Burt, the easiest way to get rid of Sam’s fear was to explain to him how a camera works and how images are projected onto the screen. As sad as it is, Burt is clearly not the best company for children or even for a struggling ex-pianist, and this comes into play, particularly during a camping trip that the family takes in Arizona. Burt’s best friend and fellow engineer, Bennie, had been almost like a part of the whole family ever since their time in New Jersey, and Bennie had actually changed jobs and moved to the desert state to remain close to the Fabelmans. At this camping trip, the children, and even Mitzi, enjoy Bennie’s company far more than they can with Burt, and the husband/father realizes this too. A happy-go-lucky man always looking for ways to entertain people around him, Bennie becomes more relatable to Mitzi than her husband over time. It had especially been Mitzi who had convinced her husband to get Bennie a job in Phoenix so that they could move together, and she has absolute heartbreak when they move to California, but Bennie cannot. While Burt seemed to have always guessed the possibility of something like this—of his wife falling in love with his best friend, their son Sam gets to know of this in a rather roundabout fashion. The boy had shot the family throughout this camping trip and had been asked by Burt to edit a short film/video out of the footage. During his time editing this, Sam comes across multiple instances of his mother spending time alone with Bennie, sometimes just chatting away, and sometimes embracing and getting close to each other. The adolescent Sam understands what this means, and at one point he tells his mother about his discovery too, by showing her the shots from the footage. When Mitzi asks Sam to keep it a secret from his father forever, he does so too, probably because he perhaps understands why his mother would fall for someone like Bennie as opposed to the controlling Burt, who was most excited only about science and technology. In many senses, Sam is exposed to the many complications of life through the lens of a movie camera, and he also gradually learns how to be in control of the narrative too. When Burt decides to take up the new job at IBM and therefore moves the entire family to California, Bennie meets with the boy one last time and gifts him a camera. However, Sam is too disturbed by this huge change of place and life, and he feels that Bennie is responsible for this change, as he believes Burt has made this decision to get away from Bennie. In all probability, this belief might be very true, for there is a sense that Burt knew about his wife’s closeness with Bennie, and he did try to move away from his friend for it. Sam, therefore, decides not to use this camera, gifted by Bennie, and temporarily stays away from shooting or filmmaking completely.
During this time of his life, the young teenager is more caught up with fitting in at his new school, where most students are much taller and more athletic than him and his family. Sam soon faces bullying from two classmates, Logan and Chad, who make fun of the boy because of his Jewish heritage. He does stand up for himself at certain times, but he is also overpowered by the bullies, who beat him up badly one time. Over the next few weeks, though, Sam meets a girl named Monica who is interested in him, and the two start to date. It is Monica who once again brings back his interest in filming, as she suggests that he shoot the school’s Senior Skip Day, which is to be held at the beach. Sam does so with a lot of interest and also enjoys making use of different shots and angles along with editing techniques to add layers to his work. In this regard, he learns a great lesson about changing people’s perspectives through his camerawork when one of his bullies, Logan, is sort of overwhelmed by the fact that despite him bullying Sam, the boy had presented Logan in the film as a heroic athlete figure. Although Sam had really not shot this to achieve this aim, as he himself admits, Logan becomes a friend of Sam. The condition at home had gotten even worse for Sam, for Mitzi had started to act strange sometime after moving to California. She finally announced to everyone that this was because she was desperately missing Bennie, who she could not live without, and therefore wanted a divorce from Burt to return to Phoenix. While the daughters had naturally broken down in response to such a fallout in their family, Burt understood and agreed to all of it, for he knew that Mitzi was never a good fit with him. Sam passed this time, this supremely difficult fracture of his family, by editing the footage of the Senior Skip Day. In more ways than one, the boy’s support had been his passion for filmmaking, even though it had not always played an equal or constant role. In the end, when he has to deal with his parent’s divorce as well as his own breakup with Monica, all he seems to have is his camera and his thoughts about shooting with it. The great-uncle Boris’ words about having to be brutally selfish and self-centered to truly pursue any artistic genius once again flash true, as, for a very brief moment, Sam thinks of the dramatic potential of shooting the scene of his mother telling his father and sisters of her wish for a divorce.
A year later, Sam moved to Los Angeles along with Burt, while his sisters and Mitzi moved back to Phoenix with Bennie. Keeping his father’s wishes, who had always felt Sam’s passion for filmmaking as a hobby rather than any real interest in life, the boy had continued with his school education. But along with attending school, he had also been writing to all Hollywood film and TV companies for any job opportunities, with no responses yet. On one particular morning, as he has a panic attack and is helped by Burt, the boy honestly admits to his father that he genuinely wants to pursue filmmaking as a career. This is also timed with the two receiving a bunch of photographs from Mitzi, in which she and the daughters, particularly she herself, is radiant with joy and happiness. Burt had always acknowledged his own shortcomings in his personal life, and now he decides to not make similar mistakes with his son as well. He acknowledges and supports Sam’s decision, and then hands over an envelope from CBS addressed to Sam. Opening it up, the boy realizes that there is a job offer for him, and he goes to meet with an executive at the studio. Sam is given the opportunity to work on a series called “Hogan’s Heroes” (which was an actual show) and is also given a chance to meet with an established film director; the executive says that he is the greatest film director to have ever lived. Excited and nervous in equal measures, Sam enters the office and sits down, waiting for the director, before realizing who he is about to meet. With posters of all of his celebrated films hanging on the wall of the office, it is clear that Sam is soon to meet John Ford. The director walks in after some time, and he then spends close to a minute in silence, lighting up his cigar as Sam stands waiting. Ford, excellently played by David Lynch, then gives Sam some major advice about cinematography and framing. The iconic director talks about how a frame where the horizon is either at the top or the bottom is always interesting, and a frame where it is in the middle, like in common reality, is useless and unworthy of shooting. Ford then almost shoo-es Sam away, but the young man is rejuvenated in his passion and interest in filmmaking as he enthusiastically walks through the Hollywood studio buildings. Spielberg’s own camera in “The Fabelmans” then tilts upward, reframing the shot in accordance with what John Ford had just said on its screen before cutting to its end.
This last encounter is heavily autobiographical, as Spielberg himself met with John Ford at a young age, and the last tilt of the camera is almost like a tip of the hat to one of his earliest inspirations and teachers of filmmaking. Much of “The Fabelmans” is actually based on Spielberg’s own life; for example, the character of Burt Fabelman is heavily inspired by his own father, and yet there are moments and instances that are made up for the film. The film is commendable not just in its style and form but also in its treatment of the content as well. Much like Ford’s advice to avoid the common and usual perspective, Spielberg seems to be taking a look back towards his parent’s divorce, which shook him and his sisters at the time, as was natural. Only this time, there seems to be an attempt to look at the matter from each of his parents’ perspectives, without any bitterness or remorse whatsoever.
“The Fabelmans” is a 2022 Drama Family film directed by Steven Spielberg.
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