But this isn’t just a film about someone who’s already good at something and just getting better at it. It’s about the difficulty of getting married, being a parent and being someone’s child. It’s also about the wonder of talent, an idea explored not only through the central trio of Sammy, Mitzi and Burt (who has real talent as a scientist and engineer), but also through a supporting character, Burt’s best friend, Benny Loewy (Seth Rogen). ), who is in her house so much that he is part of the family. It’s obvious that Mitzi resonates more with Benny than with Burt, who is a good husband and father but is basically unexciting (and knows it to his shame) and can be slightly controlling. Benny is alive and well, a guy, funny and self-deprecating and energetic. He’s as gifted at being a partner and parent as Burt is at science, Sammy at filmmaking, and Mitzi at performance, until she gave it up. During a camping trip with the Fabelman family, note how Burt drones on to the sisters how to light a campfire while Benny is in the background, and uses his burly strength to pull back a sapling Mitzi has been clinging to and then release to create an impromptu playground ride. He knows what this family really wants and needs.
Where do these gifts come from? It’s not just down to genes, psyche, conditioning or trauma. It’s mysterious. It appears out of nowhere like the shark in Jaws, the UFOs in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the wonders and disasters in War of the Worlds, and the movies Indiana Jones and Jurassic Park and the eruptions of blood and cruelty in Spielberg’s R-rated historical epics. Sammy’s uncle Boris (Judd Hirsch), a circus performer and storyteller, puts it in front of him one night: people who know they have talent need to use it, not waste it; but the more involved they become, the more they may feel or neglect their loved ones (which can evoke guilt). This conflict will wrestle within an artist forever.
From a young age Sammy finds out – or maybe instinctively White— that with a camera you can not only tell stories and take beautiful pictures, but also make friends; placate or manipulate enemies; woo potential romantic partners; glorify and humble; show people a better self to aspire to; protect the artist from injury in painful moments; smooth out or obstruct the truth and shamelessly lie.
Sammy continues to hone his skills through puberty (when a thoughtful and subtle young actor named Gabriel LaBelle takes over). He gets better film equipment that can do more. When he’s filming a western with some neighborhood kids, he realizes how his mother’s high-heeled shoe has punctured a fallen sheet of music on the living room carpet so he can punch holes in strips of film to make it seem like the boys’ toy guns are firing blanks, like in a real movie. When Sammy directs a combat film about World War II, starring his fellow Eagle Scouts, it earns him a badge of merit for photography, in large part because he’s not just a technician, but a showman who… carefully studied the construction of the films he loves (John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is a big one, and it happens to be about the tension between reality and myth).