But this is not just a movie about somebody who’s already good at something and gets even better at it. It’s about the difficulty of marriage, parenting, and being somebody’s child. It’s also about the miracle of talent, an idea that’s explored not just through the central trio of Sammy, Mitzi, and Burt (who has real talent as a scientist and engineer) but through a secondary character, Burt’s best friend Benny Loewy (Seth Rogen), who is around their house so much that he’s a part of the family. It’s immediately apparent to the viewer that Mitzi is more attracted to Benny than Burt, who is a good enough husband and father but is fundamentally unexciting (and, to his shame, knows it) and can be blandly controlling at times. Benny is hale-and-hearty, a guy’s guy, witty and energetic. He’s as gifted at being a mate and parent as Burt is at science, as Sammy is at filmmaking, and as Mitzi was at performance until she gave it up. Notice how, during a Fableman family camping trip, Burt drones on to the sisters about how to light a campfire while Benny is in the background, using his burly strength to pull back a sapling that Mitzi has clung to, then releasing it to create an improvised playground ride. He knows what this family really wants and needs.
Where does talent come from? It’s not just in the genes, the psyche, the conditioning, or the trauma. It’s mysterious. It arrives out of nowhere like the shark in “Jaws,” the UFOs in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” the miracles and disasters of “War of the Worlds” and the Indiana Jones and Jurassic Park movies, and the eruptions of gore and cruelty in Spielberg’s R-rated historical epics. Sammy’s Uncle Boris (Judd Hirsch), an actor and storyteller, lays it out for him one night: people who know that they have talent have to commit to it, but the more they commit, the more they neglect their loved ones, or feel as if they are (which can induce tremendous guilt). This conflict will wrestle inside an artist forever. Is it possible to fully commit to your talent without neglecting your loved ones?
From an early age, Sammy quickly figures out—or perhaps just instinctively knows—that a camera can be used not merely to create work while perfecting the artist’s skills, but to win friends; placate or manipulate enemies; woo prospective romantic partners; glamorize and humiliate; show people a better self that they could aspire to become; give the artist a bit of emotional distance at difficult moments; smooth out or obstruct the truth, and blatantly lie.
Sammy continues to refine his skills through adolescence (which is when a thoughtful and subtle young actor named Gabriel LaBelle takes over). He gets better filmmaking equipment that can do more things. When he makes a Western with a bunch of neighborhood kids, he figures out from looking at the way his mother’s high-heeled shoe punctured a dropped piece of sheet music on the living room carpet that 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 World War II combat film starring his fellow Eagle Scouts, it wins him a merit badge for photography, in large part because he’s not just a technician, but a showman who has carefully studied the construction of the movies he loves (John Ford’s “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” is a big one, and it just happens to be about the tension between reality and myth).