As we prepare for the 29th Screen Actors Guild Awards, Backstage is breaking down this year’s film and television ensemble nominees for your consideration.
Main Cast: Robin Bartlett, Jeannie Berlin, Julia Butters, Paul Dano, Chloe East, Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord, Judd Hirsch, Keeley Karsten, Gabriel LaBelle, Seth Rogen, Michelle Williams
Casting by: Cindy Tolan
Directed by: Steven Spielberg
Written by: Tony Kushner and Steven Spielberg
Distributed by: Universal Pictures
Few filmmakers loom as large as Steven Spielberg, and his latest work is a love letter to a bygone Hollywood era and a clear-eyed meditation on the trials and rewards of artistic life. Setting the stage for a stellar ensemble cast, the loosely autobiographical story (co-written with the director’s frequent collaborator Tony Kushner) blends intimate details with a classic take on the complexity of family dynamics.
The movie chronicles Sammy Fabelman’s coming-of-age in postwar Arizona and his first steps toward becoming a filmmaker. Along the way, he deals with growing pains, his parents’ troubled marriage, antisemitism, and the difficulties of the creative process.
As the younger Sammy, Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord beautifully conveys the wonder of being drawn to a calling at a young age, and how the desire to control images and storytelling can drive a budding artist. By the time Gabriel LaBelle assumes the role, Sammy is honing his skills and enlisting friends to act in his homemade movies, his slight stature belying a forceful personality. Whether he’s trying to get a better performance out of an amateur actor or attempting to convey the pain of a soldier mourning his lost platoon, we see Sammy improvising and learning as he goes, getting swept up in his own imagined heartache. LaBelle communicates the fear, anger, and stubbornness that burgeoning adolescence brings while remaining sharply intelligent, observant, and empathetic.
Michelle Williams’ performance as Sammy’s mother, Mitzi, is the soul of the film. It’s her guidance, after all, that first pushes him to experiment with an 8 mm camera. As a talented pianist who was never encouraged to pursue her art professionally, she understands the pull of her son’s dreams. Williams’ performance also explores the dark side of the artistic mind as Mitzi struggles with her mental health. In one revealing scene, she becomes erratic and bundles her kids into the car to drive straight into a tornado; later, she’s terrified, convinced her deceased mother is calling her in the night.
It’s heartbreaking and frightening to witness these manic episodes and the periods of listlessness that follow; but Williams makes sure that Mitzi’s humanity shines through, painting a portrait of a flawed but brave woman doing her best within strict social confines. Her eventual reconciliation with Sammy, and the personal growth it took to get her there, is a well-deserved payoff for a complex character.
Paul Dano is more reserved as the stalwart Burt, Sammy’s loving but pragmatic father who tries to guide his son away from what he considers to be a frivolous hobby. The actor’s performance is quietly affecting as Burt suffers through the pains of divorce with world-weariness and grace.
Seth Rogen is jovial as family friend Bennie Loewy, but his grounded, naturalistic performance equally serves the film’s dramatic scenes. Judd Hirsch shines as Uncle Boris, particularly in a powerful monologue about creative devotion. Chloe East is hilariously idiosyncratic as Sammy’s high school girlfriend Monica Sherwood, who intertwines romantic yearning with religious piety. And in a memorable cameo, David Lynch portrays another legendary director, John Ford; he plays the hardened Hollywood veteran with gritty charm.
“The Fabelmans” covers a lot of ground both historically and geographically, and its ensemble creates a vast tableau of joy, suffering, hope, and the love of filmmaking.
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