Where I Watched It: In Theatres
English Audio Description Available?: Yes
Probably one of my most anticipated titles of 2022, because it’s hard to turn your nose up at a semi-autobiographical story from one of the greatest living directors. If Steven Spielberg wants to impart his knowledge on me, about how he fell in love with cinema, who am I to argue with him? I’m not going to be the guy who says i love every single thing this man does. Off the top of my head, I’m not a fan of Munich. But last year, my pick for Best Picture was West Side Story, because Spielberg took a musical I actually somewhat detested and turned it completely around for me. Suddenly, everything made sense, and the music sounded great. Not to mention the acting, where several of the actors went undervalued.
So, stepping out of the house for Christmas, i wanted something worthwhile for my trip, the first in years, and also not crowded. Thank God everyone is abandoning this film, and I have a theatre that skews older so titles like this still play. It’s the kind of theatre where something like The Fablemans does well opening weekend, but something like Violent Night probably tanked.
Spielberg has put himself into the character of Sammy Fableman, and given us the opportunity to see life as Sammy does. The movie opens with Sammy being introduced to his first film ever, The Greatest Show On Earth, and being fascinated by a particular sequence. He tries over and over to recreate and capture the magic of how he felt during that scene, and eventually when he has a camera in his hand, he takes this level of completeness like Sweeney Todd being reunited with his barber tools.
Despite a vibrant and persistent campaign from Universal to run Michelle Williams in the lead category, this is Sammy’s story, and we see his world as he sees it. We see him interacting with his siblings, his friends, his parents, his extended family, all of whom shape Sammy along the way. Notably, there is a Judd Hirsch scene that everyone is going nuts for. He’s in maybe 7 minutes of the film total, with four scenes, and only two of them having significant dialogue. One of those scenes, where he gets to talk to his young grand-nephew about being an artist, and having a passion for a thing, is possibly going to get him an Oscar nomination for what is essentially a monologue.
As Sammy grows up, he keeps making films, and finds ways of showcasing them to his audience. Where he lives in the early part of the film seems really receptive to his aspirations. He’s out there, giving directorial notes. Eventually, he becomes the documentarian for family excursions, and on one particular occasion, Sammy captures something that he cannot unsee.
It is through this moment, we see Sammy struggling with the honesty of his work. his father (Paul Dano, whose calm and understated performance is the one that actually deserves to be lauded) buys him this editing device he’s been wanting, with the instructions to take the footage of the latest vacation and make a film to cheer his mom up. Sammy saw things, and filmed things that would upset his family dynamic, so there’s a pretty obvious struggle to make this film. And, he does make it. There’s the family film that everyone watches, capturing the highlights, and another version he put together just for his mom. And that’s the scene where Michelle Williams gets her Oscar moment, as she realizes everything. Her mistakes are captured on film, by her son, and how close she came to losing everything. And we learn just the difference between delivering a cut to the studios, and a directors cut. Once again, it’s Sammy’s reaction to his world, and his cathartic way of releasing it through film, that we start to see mature at this point.
Spielberg doesn’t shy away from tough subject matter in his screenplay he co-wrote with Tony Kushner. not only are the family exploits on display, but he also tackles anti-semitism head on, by having bullies attack Sammy just because of who he is. Spielberg’s direction, with this close personal story, is impeccable. The story he’s chosen to tell, about a young boy maturing and figuring out what he wants to do in life is loaded with heavy moments.
Relative newcomer Gabriel LaBelle is terrific as Sammy Fableman, but the winning performances come in the form of his supporting parents, played by Dano and Williams. Both of them compliment each other, and not just provide Spielberg with material for his behind the scenes drama, but also a reminder of how much like you Sammy is. Many people will relate to him, his parents, and the whole situation.
The audio description here, which I didn’t catch the narrator as nature did call, was just what you needed. The narrator always manages to capture not just the obvious facial expressions on display from the actors, but understands the tone of every scene, and finds a way of using the narration to compliment the film in a way that pushes the celebration of cinema. Whether it’s describing Sammy watching the Trainwreck on the big screen, his attempts to recreate that for himself, or his shattered spirit while editing a family feature, the tone is always present.
This is currently in my Top 10, and i don’t see that changing. It’s easy to write off a Spielberg title as just another Spielberg title, but The Fablemans is is a cathartic opportunity for the director that has inspired so many to follow in his footsteps, to lay out what inspired him to become the legend he is now.
Don’t miss this film.
Final Grade: A