By Steve Vertlieb: Went to see The Fabelmans over the weekend with a sense of wonder, longing, and cherished anticipation, nurtured tenderly, yet ever vibrantly alive, throughout a seeming eternity of life experiences. Steven Spielberg’s reverent semi-autobiographical story of youthful dreams and aspirations is, for me, the finest, most emotionally enriching film of the year, filled with photographic memories, and indelible recollections shared both by myself and by the film maker.
This unforgettable coming of age tale of youthful innocence and self-discovery is a deeply personal cinematic voyage for the director in which he joyously weaves a meticulous tapestry of social and artistic awakening during the post war years in this country when re-birth and re-building ushered in an irreplaceable sense of wonder, imagination, and discovery.
Growing up and maturing in a time when television offered a special landscape, designed just for children and for the very young at heart, there was magic just beyond every turn of the dial. We were all young once more, while the crude, imperfect imagery of live, original programming within the near mystical confines of that square box, seated comfortably in our living rooms, created especially for kids, appeared particularly life affirming and memorable. With the magical emergence of Walt Disney, The Mickey Mouse Club, Zorro, Hopalong Cassidy, Pinky Lee, and the Christmas magic of Milton Berle as our beloved “Uncle Milty,” television opened up vistas and journeys of imagination that enchanted and mesmerized the wide-eyed devotion of toddlers such as myself.
But the scars of bigotry, racial derision and exclusion were there as well, along with the challenges of reaching maturity unscathed. As a Jew, I was subject to the cries of “Christ Killer” and dirty “kike,” as I retreated to the sanctity, safety, reassurance and security of television and film. It was a special world in which I could hide, and rise above the pain of day to day living and ever-growing isolation. Like the director, I too was taken by my dad in 1952, at the impressionable age of six years, to see Cecil B DeMille’s grand and glorious motion picture filmed beneath “The Big Top.” Paramount’s Oscar winning production of The Greatest Show On Earth filled my childhood dreams with fabulous sights, sounds, and memories, while the memorable train crash near the film’s illustrious finale clouded my eyes with transformational spectacle and joyous, inescapable wonder.
While these unforgettable dreams, and memorably flickering images, led both Steven Spielberg and I down a tantalizing path and journey of self-awareness, and discovery, I chose to transform my inspiration into words and sentences, while the acclaimed director chose the celluloid image in which to express and nurture his own voyage to manhood.
The Fabelmans is a rapturous cinematic recollection of a period in time when the world … and We … were new. Gabriel LaBelle is wonderful in the lead role as teenaged “Sammy Fabelman” (Steven Spielberg), while his younger counterpart, essayed by Mateo Zoryan, brings a perfect sense of fragility and innocence to his role. Seth Rogan, in a rare dramatic performance as “Bennie Loewy,” is excellent, as is the understated performance of Paul Dano as Sammy’s Father, Burt (or Arnold Spielberg), as well as a memorable turn by Judd Hirsch as “Uncle Boris.”
However, it is the stand-out performance of Michelle Williams as Sammy’s beloved mother, Mitzi, that lies at the heart of this sentimental “Fable.” Williams is utterly adorable as the free spirited, artistic soul whose own dreams of relevance and longing are lovingly channeled through the growth of her son, Sammy. Williams, in her short-cropped hair and joyful demeanor, becomes a devotional remembrance of Spielberg’s own mother, Leah Frances Spielberg Adler, to whom (along with his father, Arnold) this loving cinematic tribute is dedicated.
Sadly, this marks the final collaboration between Steven Spielberg and his compositional right arm, John Williams. Having worked together in one of cinema’s most successful collaborations of film and music, Maestro Williams has decided to conclude his film career, while concentrating for the remainder of his years on music for the concert hall and stage. His last film music will accompany James Mangold’s new Raiders of the Lost Ark conclusion, Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny, opening on June 20, 2023. His score for The Fabelmans, though sparse, is a gently affectionate musical soliloquy.
Perhaps the title of this enchanting film reveals the hidden truth of its origins in that it is a fable, if you will, for those of us dwelling forever in James M. Barrie’s cherished “Never Never Land.” It is, after all, a place where dreams are eloquently born and never die, and where childhood enchantment reigns forever vital, alive, and eternally triumphant. Look for it only in books, and in the world of pure cinema where dreams never die, and are never forgotten … a special world in which the magic and wonder of childhood flourish throughout time, and are never truly “Gone With The Wind.”