Sammy is a prodigy, and possibly a genius. Mitzi can tell that from watching the boy’s first film, which employs multiple, dynamic angles to capture the crash, and uses editing to build suspense and set up visual jokes.
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 about the mystery of talent, an idea that’s explored not just through the central trio of Sammy, Mitzi, and Bud (who has real talent as a scientist and engineer) but through a secondary character, Bill’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 to her husband, who can be blandly controlling at times but is a good enough mate and father. Benny is a naturally gifted partner and parent who knows how to help other people be happy; he’s as good at these things as Bud is at science, as Sammy is at filmmaking, and as Mitzi was at performance until she gave it up.
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. This conflict will wrestle inside the 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 piece of sheet music on the floor that he can punch holes in the strips of film to make it seem like the boys’ toy guns are firing blanks, like in a real movie. Sammy directs a World War II combat film starring his fellow Eagle Scouts, and it wins him a merit badge for photography.
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