DRAMA; 2hr 31min
STARRING: Michelle Williams, Paul Dano, Seth Rogen, Gabriel LaBelle
Moving picture: front row, from left, Dano, Francis-DeFord and Williams
In 1952, Sammy Fabelman’s doting parents, pianist Mitzi and engineer Burt (Williams and Dano), take him to see Cecil B. DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth at a New Jersey cinema. Sammy (Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord as a young boy, LaBelle in his teenage years) is apprehensive. Spooked at the thought of giant people on a screen, he is enthralled by the experience, then obsessed with all things filmic — for life, as the movie gods would have it.
If you believe, like Mitzi, that “everything happens for a reason,” then the synergy of that day was kismet since Sammy Fabelman is director Steven Spielberg’s representation of himself in this lovingly composed remembrance of the childhood and adolescence that shaped him.
Sammy’s moviemaking fascination and expertise deepen in his teenage Boy Scout years in Phoenix, Arizona, where Mitzi, Burt, Sammy and his three sisters relocate when Burt is hired by General Electric, along with his jovial bestie and co-worker Bennie Loewy (Rogen). Pragmatist Burt isn’t too thrilled by Sammy’s nascent vision but Mitzi is all in with a distinctly Spielbergian optimism echoed by the family as a whole: at first blush, the timbre of their lives is as glossy as a fresh coat of paint. A spiderweb of cracks, visible in their early, hairline stage only through the lens of Sammy’s omnipresent camera, will come to fracture that sheen, and it’s in these creeping fissures that Spielberg’s screenplay — co-written with Tony Kushner (Angels in America) — is most poignantly alive, with a storm-tossed Williams a whirlwind as its nerve centre. Yet the disquiet never overwhelms, counterbalanced as it is by the small marvels of Sammy’s formative films. Their exuberance and flair are a study in perception and a joy to behold. What else would they be, after all?