“Liberty Heights” A little later, he visits another Jewish family, the Kurtzmans, but it is less warm. It explores the occasional, clumsy, budding romance between their teenage son (Ben Foster) and a black classmate (Rebecca Johnson) at a newly integrated school.
The Coen brothers go in a more philosophical direction with their apocalyptic story about a Jewish professor in Minnesota, “A Serious Man” (2009) opens with a sequel involving an evil spirit called a dybbuk, and the Coens set their story—the existential quest of a schmuck (Michael Stuhlbarg) whose wife wants a ritual divorce called a “get”—in folklore, even as it’s set. In 1967, a dark comedy about the Jewish presence in Central America combined Jewish spirituality with origins.
For Gray and Spielberg, this is not the first time any director has made a film about Jews. But their new plays explore their own Jewish upbringings, even versions of themselves. For Goldman, it’s a sign of the times. “I think you’re seeing a shift in what we’re feeling since 2015, and I’m projecting a sense of vulnerability that most American Jews didn’t feel before that,” he said in an interview. “I think it had a huge impact on forcing artists in general, but filmmakers to see themselves within a broader American society.”
In presenting similar-looking families a generation apart, the two films come to different conclusions. Gray, an inherently pessimistic filmmaker, sees his youth through the prism of a friendship between Paul (Rebetta Banks) and a black classmate, Johnny (Jaylin Webb).
Spielberg’s reaction to the anti-Semitism he encountered in his youth was confusing but ultimately more hopeful. A teenage Sam Fabelman (Gabriel LaBelle) confronts bullies, but armed with a camera on Senior Ditch Day, he draws one of them as Arya’s dreamboat, the Golden God. Joke shook. He doesn’t understand why Sam does it, and Sam isn’t so sure either, but Spielberg recognizes the power of a camera to replace the heart with metaphor.
Spielberg has created films that parallel Americana throughout his life — from Indiana Jones to suburban kids on bikes that he used some of the same tricks in “ET” in “The Fabelmans.” But the Fabelmans weren’t like every other American family. Their house on the block in New Jersey is dark at Christmastime.
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