Our Town and Your Childhood in The Fabelmans

So, let’s get this out of the way first. Sammy Fabelman is Steven Spielberg, and “they” spent their early childhood in New Jersey in the town where my wife and I are currently raising our son. The movie theater where his parents (played by Michelle Williams and Paul Dano) take him to see his first movie is called the Orpheum in the film, but clearly inspired by the locally famous Westmont Theater. In real life, while it has maintained its historic façade and marquee, the Westmont Theater is now (much to many people’s rightful dismay) a Planet Fitness. Sammy’s (and presumably Steven’s) father maintained a collection of broken TVs in his garage to tinker with and/or repair. This must’ve been all the rage back then, because our house was once owned by “the first dedicated TV repairman” in the area, and we often imagine just such a set up in our garage and attic (there are still some weird wiring and hoisting cables up there). Maybe in some strange but plausible fantasy world our home’s previous owner knew Spielberg’s dad. Spielberg’s house isn’t that far from ours, and it’s still just a regular house owned by regular folks…but in the film, it’s been transformed into a grander house on a fictional cul-de-sac. It was great fun for the first twenty minutes of the film to imagine young Spielberg and his family walking down the same streets we walk with our own son seeing many of the same sights and buildings.

Now back to the film itself minus the context specific to me. The Fabelmans is a classic coming-of-age tale focused on a young artist’s journey to finding his place in the world. The bookends in New Jersey and California are fantastic, while the middle section focused on his years in Arizona (ironically where he seemed to be the happiest and find his niche with his eager-to-star-in-his-movies Boy Scout friends) drags. But, man, when his depressed mom gets that pet Capuchin monkey after they move to California, and the monkey later sits in with the kids during the inevitable divorce talk, the film totally sucked me in.

Even a casual viewer should find plenty to like here, but film buffs, especially those who grew up on Spielberg’s classics like Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark, ET, and The Temple of Doom, will be delighted to witness the primordial genesis of many famous scenes and Spielbergian concepts. There are clear lines from moments in this film, and from his relationships with his parents and sisters, to visual filmic calling cards and character archetypes that are ingrained in a whole generation of movie-goers. You even get to see where his obsession with lens flares came from. There is also plenty to psychoanalyze here, as Spielberg presents Sammy and himself with a somewhat cold distance (but a warm lens) revealing someone who has never quite understood people too deeply, but developed a knack for capturing fleeting moments on film where damaged characters reveal their true selves regardless of his own perception of things, and painting it all on a larger-than-life canvas.

I was also pleasantly surprised by how well the drama of Sammy/Steven being an outsider in high school, while his parent’s marriage collapsed, played once the action moved to California. The screenplay was sometimes all over the place, but it was focused, tight, funny, emotional, and effective in the final hour. By the time one of my all-time favorite directors, David Lynch, showed up to play one of the greatest directors of all-time, John Ford, I was gaga for the whole dang thing. It’s matrixed storytelling at its finest. Those closing lines. That closing shot. Sammy…Stevie…they made it! Now that’s a motion picture!

It’s just too bad they don’t show them anymore at the Westmont Theater.

Review by D. H. Schleicher

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