This review of The Fabelmans was originally released alongside its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival. It has been updated and republished for theatrical release.
At the heart of almost every Steven Spielberg film is the spirit of a boy still saddened by his parents’ divorce, hiding his grief in the vast sandbox of cinema. You can see the pain of this child unconsciously spilling over into the characters of mom and dad bickering over Dating of the Third Kind. It springs from the family dynamics of ET: the extra-terrestrial. And it evolves in Catch Me If You Can, as Frank Abagnale seeks refuge in the home of his mother’s second family. But Spielberg never approached his own childhood with such candor as in his semi-autobiographical film. The Fabelmans, one of the best movies of 2022 so far.
The first word on Fabelmans gave the impression that Spielberg was ready to join the trend of cinematic origin stories, this time focusing on his own personal origin. But his crowd-pleasing coming-of-age story doesn’t fit neatly into this box, or any other. It’s a deeply personal tale that isn’t entirely an autobiography, a retelling of his career’s greatest hits, or a clichéd ode to cinema. It’s a vulnerable reach into its past, designed to heal a wound that still seems as tender as the day it opened decades ago, despite the bursts of comedy and measured ruminations on display.
On time, The Fabelmans feels more like an idealized reverie of what might have happened to him, which often strips away the edges of the real world and the sheer anger he must have felt as the son of divorced parents. This is not a confessional story. It grants real-world characters a necessary grace, the kind that people only find after emerging from the other side of a lifetime of treatment. And it exhibits a mark of craftsmanship – from deliberate blocking to controlled, ingenious camera movements – that only happens when you’re, well, Steven Spielberg. It is above all an empathetic message from the director to his mother.
Spielberg again worked with Tony Kushner (his collaborator on West Side Story, lincolnand Munich) to expand the script. Their story begins with Burt (Paul Dano, in a terrific performance) and Mitzi Fabelman (Michelle Williams, in a stunning performance) taking their young son Sammy (Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord in the opening scenes and Gabriel LaBelle in the teenage sequences) along. to the cinema to see Cecil B. DeMille The greatest show on earth. The images emanating from the screen dazzle and excite Sammy. And a fiery wreck, in which a car is impaled, blood erupts and explosions fill the air, frightens him to the point that he obsessively reenacts the scene with his toy train over and over again.
To calm his son down, Mitzi lets Sammy borrow his father’s camera so he can film one of his model train crashes in order to face his fears. What Mitzi really does, however, is spark a therapeutic love for filmmaking, creating a lens that will become Sammy’s tool for trying to make sense of the world.
Sammy’s universe is not that complex. Burt is a brilliant, hard-working computer engineer and Mitzi is a free-spirited, classically trained pianist. Sammy has three sisters: Reggie (Julia Butters), Natalie (Keeley Karsten) and Lisa (Sophia Kopera). The New Jersey house where they all live is the perfect incubator for Sammy’s imagination. In their close-knit Jewish community, they observe Jewish traditions, share their cultural humor and are frequently visited by relatives. (This is an extremely Jewish film.) They also hang out with Burt’s best friend and coworker, Bennie Loewy (Seth Rogen), a man who seems totally supportive of the couple, but whose flaws could one day destroy the relationship. family. Building on the imperative support system that the Fabelmans enjoy in their neighborhood, Spielberg and Kushner’s confident script reveals the cracks that formed once the family moved beyond its familiar confines.
Burt is ambitious and selfish. First, he uproots his family and moves them to Arizona. Then he picks up sticks and heads to Northern California. The further west the family moves, the further Sammy moves away from his family and his roots, which brings him closer to his artistic passions. This early setup, which consumes the first hour of this 151-minute personal essay, unfolds at a slow pace, with an initially disorienting thesis. How many Spielbergs are there in Sammy? To what extent is what we see fictitious? Why wasn’t it just named The Spielbergs to save everyone the headache?
In one scene, Sammy and his fellow Eagle Scouts sneak into a movie. It is telling that John Ford The man who shot Liberty Valance is playing. The film, starring Jimmy Stewart and John Wayne, centers on a local senator recounting how his rise to power was fueled by a legend that he shot the notorious titular outlaw, when in fact he did not do it. It’s a film about myth-making, re-invention, and the American West as an imperative setting for creating your own identity. The Fabelmans works the same way: it’s not a beat-for-beat origin story, it’s a chance for Spielberg to reshape the past without the heavy burden of his own name.
It also allows him to get closer to his mother’s memory. In many ways, Sammy and Mitzi are exactly alike. Burt considers their artistic passions as hobbies. And Mitzi, in particular, has spent years putting aside her creative goals in favor of her husband’s budding career. In the words of Mitzi’s Uncle Boris (Judd Hirsch, who absolutely smashes his single scene), she could have played anywhere for any symphony. Instead, she became a mother. Now she and Sammy are looking for a way to move past Burt’s idiosyncrasies. But the once close bond shared by mother and son comes loose when Sammy learns a disturbing secret about Mitzi (in a sequence elegantly put together by Fabelmans editors Sarah Broshar and Michael Kahn) which caused him to temporarily lose his love of cinema.
Make no mistake, however, The Fabelmans is not austere. A visual fantasy dances across the screen. Well-calibrated tracking shots and dazzling cinematography by Janusz Kaminski set the creative bar. References to Spielberg’s greatest hits add a nod to his own career. The scenes of Sammy first filming simple shorts and then moving on to decently sized, homemade war films are inviting enough to make an entire audience want to get into amateur cinema. And at Sammy’s new high school in Los Angeles, he falls in love with a Christian girl, Monica (Chloe East), whose attempts to convert Sammy provide uproarious prayers that double as understatements.
And yet, the feeling of betrayal felt by a child after a divorce propels this film. This is where LaBelle shines as teenage Sammy. He doesn’t just imitate Spielberg’s speaking cadence and body language. It rises above mere artifice by portraying Sammy as a dweeby child, unathletic and stupid at first, and as Spielberg next. Nowhere is this felt more than when Sammy faces his anti-Semitic bullies with the power of theatrical experience. This is a movie that seriously loves watching people watch movies: it loves the inner machinations, the hypnotic awe, and the revealed truths that happen when people see themselves on screen. LaBelle grounds these scenes with a sincerity that doesn’t sound cutesy, but euphoric and infectious.
And while LaBelle is wonderful on his own, he finds another level playing against an incandescent Williams and a subtle but powerful Dano. (The character work done here is among her best.) Williams, as the trapped housewife, puts on a coasting performance that would be considered incredibly brilliant in its rawness and liveliness, if she didn’t just pull it off. Williams perfectly captures the feeling of a woman about to tear herself apart, until she remembers it’s not his dreams or happiness that must be shredded.
But Spielberg takes a refreshing approach, being careful not to portray Burt or Mitzi as absolute villains. They’re complicated people with untold needs that they can’t meet by sticking together. It’s Sammy who understands the ambiguity of adulthood. It’s Spielberg who kisses her, so he can see his mother as a valid person in her own right.
At the end of the film – which includes a cameo too hilarious to portray by David Lynch as John Ford – Sammy hops into a studio knowing his troubles are behind him and his future is just ahead of him. The Fabelmans Spielberg exercises his vast cinematic knowledge to compose a story where his whole heart is stapled to the screen. It’s a beautiful, evocative and captivating blockbuster, perfectly suited to remind viewers of the power that can reside in a film.
The Fabelmans opens in grand theatrical release on November 23.