Steven Spielberg's semi-autobiographical drama is rooted in emotion and vulnerability in one of the most passionately told films of the year.
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I don’t think I need to explain myself; if you know me, you know my undying love for Steven Spielberg, who has without a doubt always been and always will be my favorite filmmaker to ever do it. It’s movies like "E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial," "Jurassic Park," "Jaws," and "Raiders of the Lost Ark" that played a major role in making me fall in love with film and eventually pursue a career in writing about it.
Even some of his lesser films aren’t without their moments, and the man has never, ever, phoned it in.
Spielberg has always rooted ideas and themes from his personal life into his films, using backdrops like dinosaurs, sharks, space aliens, and Nazi-punching archeologists to let the audience have a glimpse inside his brain.
That being said, "The Fabelmans" is different. Spielberg himself has gone on to call the film a therapy session for him, which you can clearly tell. This appears to be the first time the celebrated filmmaker is willing to abandon metaphors and become vulnerable with the audience. With the kind of career he's had, he’s more than earned it.
While there has been a recent string of directors making films about their origins, like Kenneth Branagh with "Belfast" or Alfonso Cuaron with "Roma," this has always been a thing in Hollywood. Hell, Cameron Crowe did it 18 years before it was trendy with “Almost Famous.”
“The Fabelmans” stands apart from the films that came before. Anyone who knows Spielberg’s story or has seen the HBO documentary about him will know that "The Fabelmans" definitely seems to draw from fact rather than fiction.
The film begins in 1952, when young Sammy Fabelman (Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord) goes to see his first movie alongside his parents, Mitzi (Michelle Williams) and Burt (Paul Dano). That film being "The Greatest Show on Earth." While initially nervous, Sammy becomes transfixed by the film’s train crash scene and, after receiving a train set for Hannukah, becomes determined to recreate said crash on his own.
The family soon moves away, across the country, to Phoenix, Arizona. Several years pass, and Sammy (now played by Gabrielle Labelle) is a talented teenager. He’s been recruiting his friends from school and from the Boy Scouts to star in his extremely elaborate productions, ranging from westerns to WWII actioners. When tragedy strikes the family, a dark secret emerges that causes Sammy to question not just his love for film but for his family as well.
"The Fabelmans" is much smaller in scale compared to Spielberg’s most recent offerings and even compared to a lot of his more prestige fare. Yet, he has that magic touch that makes even the smallest moments, like Mitzi talking to Burt about filming his own train crash, into something so cinematic.
This entire film is not just a reminder of why we love Spielberg; it also isn’t just a typical family drama — it feels like a film-lovers' ode to loving film.
Spielberg speaks to a lot of things here, opening up about his own insecurities, his heartbreaks, and his family’s Jewish faith also plays an incredibly large role in the film, particularly as we see Sammy facing a group of anti-Semitic bullies during his senior year of high school. Though nothing ever feels preachy or too Hollywood, there’s an honesty to it that makes the film’s impact all the more emotional.
Michelle Williams, as you may have already heard, does phenomenal work as Mitzi, who is the true heart of the film. "The Fabelmans" acts just as much for Mitzi’s own journey as it does for Sammy’s. Williams truly gives this performance every ounce of energy that she has and gels perfectly with Spielberg’s direction.
She’s a free-spirit, the kind of woman who randomly buys a monkey, dances in a see-through dress while her family is watching, and drives her young kids through a tornado, just for the thrill. She’s also very mismatched with her more analytical and uptight husband, Burt. Mitzi encourages Sammy’s passion and wants him to live his dream. Burt views filmmaking as nothing more than a hobby.
While that may sound like Spielberg and Tony Kushner’s script are demonizing Burt, it’s not. This is a film that basks in our imperfections, through the good, the bad, and the ugly, and shows that our passion is what truly drives us. Is it schmaltzy, sure, and oversentimental, one could say that, but if there’s one thing Spielberg is good at, it’s creating those feelings and making them feel truly authentic.
Paul Dano’s role as Burt is much quieter than William’s Mitzi, but that’s the point, and he’s the perfect fit for this character, proving he’s one of the most underrated actors in the business and making us lament once more how he doesn’t at least have an Academy Award nomination yet. Seth Rogen plays Benny, the best friend and co-worker of Burt, who is like an uncle to the Fabelman children. While Rogen may not have as much screen time as Williams or Dano, his character has a massive role in the film, and Rogen clearly gets this character. This is far different than a lot of the roles Rogen has done before, but he still maintains all of his charm.
Judd Hirsch is another massive standout in his brief role as Sammy’s great-uncle Boris Schildkraut. He only pops up in the film for about ten minutes in the second act, but he commands the screen and reignites the film’s spark right when it needs it.
Though this film wouldn’t even exist without Gabriel LaBelle as Sammy Fabelman, aka our young Spielberg. LaBelle has that kind of energy that some of Spielberg’s very protagonists have had in the past. He’s awkward, sure, but he’s also very easy to see yourself in and become emotionally invested in and attached to. Not just because we know he’ll one day become Steven Spielberg, but because of his journey and the obstacles he faces through the film.
Some of Spielberg’s frequent collaborators also join him; cinematographer Janusz Kamiński delivers some stunning work, even without the huge set-pieces of something like a "Saving Private Ryan" or the musical numbers of "West Side Story." Kamiński’s work is meant to be seen on the biggest screen possible and is vital to capturing Spielberg’s golden touch. John Williams’ score, which will reportedly be his last alongside next year’s "Indiana Jones 5," is quieter than some of his most famous works, but is still one of his best in awhile.
There may be some who will lament that "The Fabelmans" feels too slow, or that it is cheesy. The film’s two and a half hour runtime may seem like a deal-breaker for some, and this is a far quieter film than some might expect from Spielberg, but it is also, undoubtedly one of his very best films and one of the most emotional films of his career.
Don’t miss this one.