December 22, 2022 – If I had extensively researched the life of Steven Spielberg prior to seeing this semi-autobiographical movie about him, it might not have held so many surprises for me, but I didn't, and I was constantly surprised by the frequent plot twists in the story.
The Spielberg character in the film is Sam Fabelman, played by Gabriel LaBelle (“The Predator”) as a teenager, and by Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord, as Sammy in his younger years as he sees his first movie and becomes interested in making films with a home movie camera. Sam's parents, electrical engineer Burt (Paul Dano of “The Batman”) and frustrated concert pianist Mitzi (Michelle Williams of “Manchester by the Sea”) seem like an odd match.
Mitzi, like Sam, is artistic, while Burt is logical, with a strong interest in mathematics and science, not shared by the rest of the family. Burt works at General Electric on some important early computers in the 1950s and 1960s. The only other person around who has any idea what Burt is working on is his best friend and co-worker, Bennie Loewy (Seth Rogen of “Steve Jobs”). Bennie is a close friend of the family, affectionately called Uncle Bennie.
Other members of the family are Sam's sisters, Natalie (Keeley Karsten) Reggie (Julia Butters) and Lisa (Sophia Kopera). Burt's mother, Haddash, and Mitzi's mother, Tina Schildkraut (Robin Bartlett) also make appearances. Sam also has a brief, but memorable visit from his flamboyant show business granduncle Boris (Judd Hirsch of “Independence Day”).
The movie follows Sam as his interest in making films deepens, encouraged by his mother, but discouraged by his father, who regards Sam's filmmaking as a hobby, and not a real occupation. After Mitzi's mother dies, she becomes depressed. Burt decides that Sam should make a film of a family camping trip where Mitzi enjoyed herself, to make her feel better. He buys Sam a good film editing machine and encourages him to make the camping trip film.
While making the camping trip film, Sam discovers something about his parents in the developed images that upsets him so much that he stops making movies. Mitzi notices the emotional change in her son, and confronts him. This leads to a whole series of events that throws the whole family into turmoil. Chasing his computer dreams, Burt takes on new jobs which lead the family to move to Arizona, and finally, to California, much to Mitzi's dismay.Sam has trouble adjusting to his new high school in California, where he seems to be the only Jewish student. He is harassed and attacked by other students, particularly by Chad Thomas (Oakes Fegley of “The War With Grandpa”) and Logan Hall (Sam Rechner). After some run-ins with other students, though, he does finally meet his first girlfriend, Monica Sherwood (Chloe East) and takes her to the prom. Sam becomes interested in making movies again when he finds out that he can borrow an expensive 16mm Arriflex movie camera from Monica's father in order to film the school's 1964 “Ditch Day” activities at Santa Cruz Beach. Sam edits the film on a rented editor and plays the film at the prom. His popular film makes one school bully, Logan Hall, look like an all star, and the other bully, Chad Thomas, look like a loser. Making this film reignites Sam's passion for filmmaking.
While Chad's reaction to the “Ditch Day” film is what you would expect, Logan has a very different reaction to the film, which seems to reveal something profound about himself. While Sam and Logan are talking about the film, and Logan's unexpected feelings, Chad shows up, mad as a hornet. He receives an unexpected reception. Logan's reaction to the “Ditch Day” film reveals the power of movies to Sam.
There is an old saying that we live through our movies. Through movies we learn how to see the world and even how to act and how to feel about things. That's true in this film, but this film also seems to show how Sam learns about the world, and his own feelings through his camera, and through his film editor, and by making his own films. By extension, perhaps this is also how Steven Spielberg himself grew up learning about himself and the world.
The movie ends where Sam's career begins, at the CBS TV network, and his brief meeting with legendary film director John Ford (played by iconic film director David Lynch of “Mulholland Drive”) who gives him a couple of interesting pointers about making films.
There is more than a little bit of Steven Spielberg's own life in this film, and probably a lot of it also depicts events that happen the way he wished they would have happened. Films, they say, are like dreams. Sam getting to meet John Ford, is also a dream, and the film career he is soon to embark on is also a dream. It's life, but it is also a dream.
Just when you think you know these characters in this film, they surprise you. A minor character that seems unimportant, suddenly says something important that gives you a new understanding of the story. Judd Hirsch gives a great performance in this film, maybe his best ever, in a scene in which he explains the importance of art to Sam. He also teaches Sam that balancing family and his art will require him to make difficult choices. I had a hard time accepting Paul Dano as Sam's father, but he gets the job done. Michelle Williams glows as the unhappy mother.
Gabriel LaBelle gives a strong performance as Sam, who goes through a maze of feelings in this film, and I already mentioned the effectiveness of Sam Rechner's performance as Logan in one of the most important scenes in the movie. As usual in Spielberg's films, the cinematography (by Janusz Kaminski of “Bridge of Spies” and many other Spielberg collaborations) and the work of the art direction and production teams is first rate, as is the music by the iconic John Williams. This is one hell of a movie, and one of the best films of 2022. It rates an A.
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