If you ask a random person on the street to name a movie director, there’s a more than good chance they’re going to say Steven Spielberg. And with a career as prolific as his, can you really blame them? We’re talking about a man with a filmography that goes back an incredible six decades while also dabbling in just about every single genre known to man. Action-adventure blockbusters, prestigious awards-season dramas, war films, comedies, science-fiction, and even musicals – you name it and Spielberg has directed an incredibly significant contribution to the genre. With his impressive career now in its waning phase, it’s interesting now to think about what early events in Spielberg’s life might have led the man first to pick up a film camera and develop an admiration for his craft. We now have that answer with The Fabelmans, the maestro’s newest, most personal film.
The year is 1952. A young Sam Fabelman waits with his parents Mitzi and Burt outside their local New Jersey movie theater. This isn’t any ordinary trip to the cinema, however, as this will be the first movie Sam has ever seen. “Movies are dreams you never forget,” explains the young boy’s mother in an effort to quell Sam’s fear of 20-foot-tall people on projected screens. What follows is perhaps one of the most important visits to a movie theater in terms of its impact on film history. Despite being perceived now as one of the worst Best Picture winners in history, The Greatest Show on Earth sets Sam (and the young boy who inspired him) on the path to falling in love with not only cinema but also filmmaking. Therein lies the difference between a movie like The Fabelmans and other semi-autobiographical stories from directors about their childhoods (which have become quite prevalent over the last few years). Movies like 2021’s Belfast are focused on a child’s love for the idea of cinema (which in itself is a powerful concept), while The Fabelmans is more preoccupied with the love of the craft and artistry that goes into creating the art form.
There’s a sense of childhood wonder that Spielberg and his cinematographer, frequent Spielberg collaborator Janusz Kamiński, imbue onto every frame of the film, whether that be Sam directing on the set of his short films (which are impeccably made for someone who is only in high school) or him holed up editing in his bedroom. That’s not even to mention the scenes that we spend with Sam’s family, namely his parents. In taking a short break from portraying the absolute weirdos that he is so well-known for playing, we finally see the soft and sensitive side of Paul Dano. Dano plays against type beautifully as a conflicted father who on one hand supports his son’s filmmaking hobby while also viewing it as just that – a hobby. I hope that this is a kind of role that Dano returns to in future projects, because as it turns out he’s a natural talent for playing sweet dads. Michelle Williams’s portrayal of Mitzi Fabelman is also wonderfully played, with every glance and facial expression carrying with it the unapologetic love of her children along with the dead weight of an unfulfilled marriage and career in the arts. Although some will find her portrayal of Spielberg's mother as overly sentimental (an accusation many have had for Spielberg’s works over the past several decades), I feel that Williams perfectly toes the line between sincere and syrupy. Despite being based on an individual that Spielberg clearly adored, Mitzi Fabelman isn’t exactly painted in the most flattering light. She has a bit of a manic and eclectic personality, so Williams’s performance can sometimes border on the manic pixie dream mom character trope. However, for every scene where she drives her children towards the middle of a nearby tornado, there’s another where she is genuine and extremely vulnerable. Some of those moments include the fallout of an enormous revelation involving strips of film, as well as her final scene on-camera. The rest of the cast is great too, with relative newcomer Gabriel LaBelle taking on the mantle of a future Oscar winner and making it look easy. LaBelle not only exudes charm and charisma, but also captures the mannerisms and intricacies of Spielberg quite well (the scenes of him directing his friends on the set of his short films immediately come to mind). It helps that he also looks eerily similar to the young auteur, even to the point of having you forget that this is technically a story about a boy who only ever existed on the screen.
Although The Fabelmans has an overarching story with a beginning and an end, it’s largely told in an episodic format. The movie is loosely structured around scenes with side characters popping in and out of the narrative, with some of the more memorable ones being Sam Fabelman’s Jesus freak girlfriend, his uncle with a history of working in the movies (played by Judd Hirsch, who uses his extremely short amount of screentime and makes wonders out of it), and even a world-famous film director played in a cameo by yet another world-famous film director. Although the short encounters are often very entertaining, they lead to my main criticism of the movie, which is that the scene transitions often feel jarring and lack a sense of cohesion. I’m sure many will have no problem at all with it, but I found that the loose structure could have used some tightening up, perhaps by having more of a throughline with Sam’s relationship with his parents. The fact that The Fabelmans is not only juggling Spielberg’s coming-of-age story but also his parents' messy separation, his initial intrigue into the world of filmmaking, his experience shooting short films with his friends, his experience of anti-Semitic bullying in high school, and the relationship that art and family hold in his life… put simply, it’s a lot. Although consistently entertaining, the 150-minute run-time definitely feels its length, especially on a rewatch. That all being said though, the sheer force of the performances as well as an emotional storyline are enough to push The Fabelmans over the finish line and then some. Of all of the recent semi-autobiographical retellings of famous film directors’ childhoods, The Fabelmans is by far my favorite. Although this would easily be the career-best achievement of nearly any other director, for someone like Spielberg, The Fabelmans doesn’t come close. I guess that’s what happens when you deliver one banger film after another (ignoring Ready Player One, of course). It just goes to show how immense Spielberg’s talent for filmmaking is (and according to this film, really always has been). While The Fabelmans is no West Side Story (2021), it stands on its own as the most personal of Spielberg’s canon. Although the film could easily read as the director’s final one before riding off into the sunset, he thankfully intends to keep working. I greatly look forward to seeing the final chapter of the aging auteur’s filmography, especially if the quality of The Fabelmans is anything to go off of.