Jewish themes are having a moment at the cinema this Fall, with two movies in theatres now for audiences to choose from: James Gray’s semi-autobiographical Armageddon Time and out this week, The Fabelmans, Steven Spielberg’s fictionalized look at his own family, co-written by Tony Kushner. They share certain similarities: conflict between fathers and sons, a wise older relative speaking truths, and a view of Jewish life from the past (1980 for Gray and the 1950s and 60s for Spielberg). But tonally, they couldn’t be more different, and Fabelmans will be the crowd-pleaser.
Movies are transformative for 6-year-old Sam Fableman (Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord – those big blue eyes!). He experiences the thrill and terror of the silver screen when his parents (the marvelously patient and adoring Paul Dano and Michelle Williams – more on her) take him to his first movie, The Greatest Show On Earth. A train crash strikes a chord with him and he sets out to recreate it at home, aided by the Chanukkah gift of a train set. Sam is compelled by the need to control and be the storyteller, and his mother, Mitzi – her own artistic ambitions as a concert pianist derailed by domesticity and a marriage to a kind man who worships but doesn’t know her – is the one who understands him, letting him film his own version of the crash to watch over and over.
Sam graduates from home movies with his sisters (Birdie Borria and Alina Brace, utter cuteness wrapped in many rolls of toilet paper for The Mummy), to teenage auteur who takes inspiration from his favorites like Who Shot Liberty Valance? to direct his friends and fellow Scouts in a moving Western. The high school version of Sam (Gabriel LaBelle) is charting a course for himself at odds with his father Burt, who views Sam’s pursuit dismissively as a silly hobby. Sam becomes the documenter of his family, including “Uncle” Benny (Seth Rogen), even as Burt, an engineer, presses him to do something practical, and his increasingly unhappy and frustrated mother cheers him on.
When Burt moves them from New Jersey (first to Arizona, then the West Coast) for work, a miserable Sam struggles to find his footing. Surrounded by a sea of anti-Semitic, violent bullies (Sam Rechner and Oakes Fegley) and Christians in California, he finds some solace in Monica (Chloe East), who amusingly, is as eager to make out as she is religious. The Fablemans are also at a turning point after Sam films a camping trip and discovers a secret that will rupture the family. He’s burdened with being the only one to truly see Mitzi and trying to keep things from falling apart. He’s also attempting to reconcile his father’s wishes with his own, a battle perfectly summed up by an out-of-the-blue visit from Uncle Boris (a memorable frenetic burst from Judd Hirsch), the never-seen black sheep of Mitzi’s family. Boris ran off long ago and joined the circus, casting shame upon everyone. Sam lands, if not immediately on his feet, in Hollywood, and it being the land of dreams, he finds his.
The cast does wonderful work bringing Spielberg’s family to life. LaBelle, in his first film lead, is truly winning, capturing the exuberance and magic of moviemaking as well as his anguish over his cherished mother’s fight to be selfish but a whole person. Williams is literally luminous in front of the headlights when Mitzi performs a spontaneous dance that is beautiful and aching with the unspoken. She mesmerizes as she expresses Mitzi’s yearning for a contentment that her loved ones can’t provide.
Following the latest wave of antisemitic events of the last month, Spielberg’s warm, heartfelt and unabashedly Jewish movie offers wonder, an embrace and much-needed healing.