The Fabelmans is the film Steven Spielberg spent his entire career preparing for

Steven Spielberg’s latest release, The Fabelman’s, is a thorny, complicated work in which the legendary director tells the story of his family and childhood and seeks to unravel the intense power of cinema. It’s an emotionally powerful film, a fact that led to it winning Best Drama Motion and Best Director at the 80th Golden Globes, and earning three other nominations.

The most important scene in The Fabelmans comes in Act III. Parents Burt (Paul Dano) and Mitzi (Michelle Williams) Fabelman gather their four children in the living room of their Northern California home to share devastating news.

As tears are shed and accusations made, the eldest Fabelman child — aspiring teenage film director Sam (Gabriel LaBelle) — gazes at the mirror. In the mirror, Sam sees his 8mm camera circling his family, finding the best angles to capture the drama. The camera becomes both a shield, obscuring his face, removing him from the turbulent scene, and a way for Sam to express his feelings.

A broken family has been the focus of many of Spielberg’s films. ET The Extra-Terrestrial, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Catch Me If You Can all deal with the turmoil of divorce, emotions that are often interpreted to mean the dissolution of Spielberg’s parents’ marriage were inspired.

Now that The Fabelmans breaks all metaphors, Spielberg presents a fictional story of his childhood, from a love of movies to the pain of his parents’ divorce. With the warm intimacy of an uncle recounting old tales after a family dinner, important and mundane moments from Spielberg’s post-WWII upbringing are presented: camping trips, family deaths, first kisses and, yes, filming with his Boy Scout troop in the desert from Arizona.

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Portrait of the artist as a young man

Much has been written and even mythologized by some film scholars and critics about Spielberg’s childhood – the supernatural filmmaker shooting 8mm films in his backyard while nursing the open wound of his parents’ divorce.

The Fabelmans begins with a teenager visiting Sam John Ford’s masterpiece The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. A famous line from the film is: “When the legend becomes true, print the legend.”

With The Fabelmans, Spielberg has the opportunity to print the legend, to soften and embellish painful experiences through the power of cinema. The film’s tension comes from the way manipulation meets reality. That’s what The Fabelmans is all about: the way this film can simultaneously distort reality and reveal the truth.

“Movies are dreams you never forget”

In the winter of 1952, young Sam is taken by his parents to see Cecil B. DeMille’s circus epic The Greatest Show on Earth, his very first film. As they enter the movie palace, analytical electrical engineer Burt explains the technical side of filmmaking, how a defect in the human retina allows 24 frames per second to pass in a fluid image. In contrast, artistic Mitzi whispers to Sammy, “Movies are dreams you never forget.”

The climactic train wreck in The Greatest Show on Earth scares Sammy so much that he begins obsessively recreating the moment with his Lionel set. Mitzi realizes her son is trying to overcome his fear and lends him a movie camera to film the crash. Very quickly, the camera becomes a means for Sam to translate and process his emotions, to control the things in his life that are uncontrollable.

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When Sam films his younger sisters wrapped in toilet paper as mummies and discovers that punching holes in film can simulate gunshots, a distance develops between Burt and Mitzi. Scientifically minded Burt and creative Mitzi love each other deeply but don’t understand each other’s thoughts and need someone to translate – a task that falls to mutual friend Bennie Loewy (Seth Rogen). Bennie is such an indispensable part of the family that when the Fabelmans move to Arizona, he does too.

Later the family is uprooted to Northern California. Unhappy in her marriage and lonely in a new town, Mitzi’s impulsive Peter Pan qualities take on an unsettling tone, such as when she buys a monkey because she “needed a laugh.” Sam encounters anti-Semitic bullies in high school, gets an avidly religious girlfriend, and delves deeper into filmmaking as the family falls apart.

With Spielberg’s well-established reputation for sentimentality and manipulation, it might come as a surprise that The Fabelmans is his most low-key and light-hearted film in years. The film never relies on simple emotions or quick fixes. “The Fabelmans” has an almost clinically clear view of his characters and the situations, a sensitive understanding of human behavior and an innate instinct for entertainment, all working together to broaden his horizons and engage each viewer in his world.

Wonderful performances add heart and breadth to the film

One of the tools The Fabelmans has to expand its reach beyond Steven Spielberg is the rich and holistic performances by Williams and Dano. Williams bursts off the screen with an electrifying bundle of nerves and never-ending charm. She captures the feeling of a woman being forced and about to tear herself apart to get out. Dano is just as good in a far less flashy role, doing subtle work that shows love and caring amid emotional constipation.

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The Fabelmans ends with a chance meeting between Sam and a legendary director too hilarious to even consider. Sam leaves the meeting and bounces around the Universal Studios set with a head full of dreams and future movies. As he moves across the set, there’s a delightful cinematic gimmick, a shift in camera perspective. Maybe Sam Fabelman isn’t exactly sure where to put the camera yet, but Steven Spielberg does, and he knows exactly why you keep looking.

The Fabelmans is a deeply personal work, with a heart big enough to embrace your own and to remind you of the emotional power of the films.

“The Fabelmans” is rated PG-13 for some strong language, thematic elements, brief violence, and drug use.

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