Movies like Spielberg’s The Fabelmans don’t need review. In an age obsessed with origin stories, the first words about Steven Spielberg’s semi-autobiographical film The Fabelmans made it sound like he was ready to jump on the film trend. But his crowd-pleasing coming-of-age story doesn’t fit neatly into that box or any other. Spielberg’s deeply personal narrative is not entirely an autobiography, a rehash of the greatest hits of a singular filmmaker’s career, or a clichéd ode to filmmaking. The Fabelmansit’s a vulnerable look into the past to heal a wound that seems to remain as tender as the day it fanned decades ago, despite the outbreaks of comedy and measured musings on display.
Because at the heart of almost every Spielberg film is the spirit of a child, still saddened by his parent’s divorce, who hides his pain in the great sandbox of cinema. You can see the child’s pain unconsciously spilling over into the arguing mom and dad characters in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. But Spielberg has never approached his childhood as candidly as he does in this new film. It sprouts into the family dynamic of ET: The Extra-Terrestrial. And he evolves into Catch Me If You Can as Frank Abagnale seeks refuge in his mother’s second family home. In the same way, he showed the deepest part of his life in the Fabelmans, we try to convey some glimpses with the review.
Review Of Spielberg’s The Fabelmans
We try to give a friendly review without a spoiler of The Fabelmans. At times, The Fabelmans feels more like an idealized dream of what could have happened to him, which removes the edges of the real world and the raw anger he’s felt as the son of divorced parents. It is not a confessional story. It gives real-world figures a necessary grace, which people only find after coming out the other side of a lifetime of processing. And it features a brand of craftsmanship, from deliberate blocking to slick, controlled camera moves, that only happens when you’re Steven Spielberg. Above all, it is a message of empathy from the director to his mother.
Spielberg developed the script with Tony Kushner (his collaborator on West Side Story, Lincoln, and Munich ). Their story starts with Burt (Paul Dano, in a tremendous performance) and Mitzi Fabelman (Michelle Williams, in a sensation) carrying their young son Sammy (Matthew Zoryon Francis-DeFord in the early scenes. And Gabriel LaBelle in the teen sequences to the movies to see Cecil B. DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth. The images that stem from the screen dazzle and exhilarate Sammy. And a burning derailed train, in which a car is impaled, blood spurts and explosions fill the air, scares him to the point where he obsessively recreates the scene with his toy train repeatedly.
To calm her son down, Mitzi allows Sammy to borrow the camera from his father so he can film the accident as a way to face his fears. What Mitzi does, however, is ignite a therapeutic love of filmmaking, creating a lens that will become Sammy’s tool in trying to make sense of the world.
Sammy’s universe is not that complex. Couples, Burt is a brilliant workaholic computer engineer, and Mitzi is a classically trained, free-spirited pianist. Sammy has three sisters, namely Reggie (Julia Butters), Natalie (Keeley Karsten), and Lisa (Sophia Kopera). Their New Jersey house is the perfect incubator for Sammy’s imagination. In their close Jewish community, they observe Jewish traditions, share their cultural humor, and are often visited by relatives. They also hang out with Burt’s best friend and colleague, Bennie Loewy (Seth Rogen), a man who seems supportive of the couple but whose flaws could one day unravel the family. By building the imperative support system that the Fabelmans enjoy in their neighborhood.
Burt is selfish and ambitious. Foremost, he uproots his family and moves them to Arizona. Later he then picks up sticks and heads for Northern California. And also, the family moves west. After that, Sammy moves away from his family and roots, bringing him closer to his artistic passions. This early setting, which eradicates the first hour of this 151-minute personal essay, unfolds at a slow pace, with an initially disorienting thesis. How much is Spielberg there in Sammy? How much of what we’re seeing is fictional? Why isn’t this just named? The Spielbergs to save everyone the headache?
Sammy and his fellow Eagle Scouts sneak into a movie in one scene. It tells that John Ford is playing The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. The film, which stars Jimmy Stewart and John Wayne, centers on a local senator who recounts how the legend fueled his rise to power that he shot the infamous incumbent outlaw when he didn’t. It is a film about the creation of myths, reinvention, and the American West as an acute setting to create your own identity. The Fabelmans works similarly: it’s not a beat-for-beat origin story. It is a chance for Spielberg to reshape the past without his name’s heavy burden.
In many ways, both Sammy and Mitzi are exactly alike. Burt dismisses his artistic passions as hobbies. That also allows him to get closer to the memory of his mother again. Further, Mitzi has spent years setting aside her creative goals in favor of the burgeoning career of her husband. In the words of Boris (Judd Hirsch, who crushes her only scene), Mitzi’s Uncle, she could have played anywhere for any symphony. Instead, she became a mother. Now Mitzi and Sammy are looking for a way to get over Burt’s idiosyncrasies. But the once-tight bond between mother and son is unraveled when Sammy learns Mitzi’s disturbing hidden secret (in a sequence elegantly assembled by fabelmans’ editors Sarah Broshar and Michael Kahn), causing him to lose his love for filmmaking temporarily.
Make no mistake, though, and The Fabelmans aren’t stern. Well-calibrated tracking shots and stunning cinematography of Janusz Kaminski set the creative standard. A visual whim dances across the screen. References to Spielberg’s greatest hits add a touch of distinction to his career. The first shooting simple short scenes of Sammy and then graduating to decent-sized war movies of his own are engaging enough. It makes the total audience like to go into ‘amateur filmmaking.’ And at Sammy’s new Los Angeles high school, he falls in love with a Christian girl, Monica (Chloe East), who tries to convert Sammy and provide wild prayers that double as euphemisms.
And yet, the intent of betrayal a child feels after a divorce drives the current film. It’s where LaBelle shines as teenage Sammy. It does not just mimic the cadence of speech Spielberg and his body language. She rises above mere artifice by portraying Sammy as a dimwitted, unathletic, street goofy kid and Spielberg. Nowhere is she more felt than when Sammy confronts his anti-Semitic thugs with the power of theatrical experience. LaBelle grounds those scenes with an earnestness that is not sentimental but thrilled and infectious. It is a movie that loves watching people watch movies – it loves the inner machinations, hypnotic wonder, and revealed truths that happen when people see themselves on screen.
And while LaBelle is great on his own, he finds another level when he plays against a white-hot Williams and a subtle yet potent Dano. As the trapped housewife, Williams turns in a lighthearted performance that he’d call impossibly brilliant in its rawness and liveliness if she didn’t pull it off. Williams perfectly expresses the feeling of a woman about to be torn apart until she remembers that it’s not her dreams or happiness that need to be shredded from her.
However, Spielberg takes a refreshing approach by making sure not to paint Burt or Mitzi as outright villains. They are complicated people with aggressive needs that they can’t meet while staying together. It is Sammy’s understanding of the ambiguity of adulthood. It is Spielberg hugging him so that he can see his mother as a valid person in her own right.
Apart from the movie review, The Fabelmans is Spielberg’s exerting his vast cinematographic knowledge to write a story in which his whole heart is stapled to the screen. At the film’s end, which includes a cameo too funny to be described by David Lynch as John Ford, Sammy skips a studio knowing his troubles are behind him, and his future lies ahead. It’s a beautiful, evocative, and gripping blockbuster realization, perfectly attuned to remind viewers of the power that can reside in a movie.
The Fabelmans premiered at the Toronto film festival, got applause, and gave a good review for the movie. The Fabelmans will open with a limited release on November 11, with a wide release on November 23.