The Fabelmans is Spielberg at his finest.
Published on December 1, 2022
Rating 4 /5
Steven Spielberg delivers perhaps his finest film in a decade. Though his filmmaking is always rather strong, it’s in top form with The Fabelmans, a semi-autobiographical film about his childhood. What makes this film so remarkable is that it taps into far more than just the rose-colored glasses that he usually applies to aspects of adolescence. Here, Spielberg puts much more of himself on the slab to deliver a highly personal film that rises above mere melodrama to become surprisingly heartfelt.
The film follows the upbringing of Sammy (Gabriel LaBelle) between the 1950s and 60s. Starting from his first experience in a movie theater, Sammy finds himself fascinated with filming the fantastical. An interest in crashing trains leads to a spectacular film that dazzles his mother Mitzi (Michelle Williams) but frustrates his father Burt (Paul Dano). Mitzi represents a desire for art while Burt is much more about science, based on the backgrounds of the two parents and how they perceive their future. As Sammy’s filmmaking techniques improve, his family grows all the more chaotic as divorce enters the picture.
There are some uncomfortable feelings explored in this family drama that come with a healthy dose of catharsis. Mitzi is portrayed as a woman who was once an aspiring pianist whose dreams she felt died years ago. That loss of creativity finds her sinking into a depression that conflicts with her parenting, leading to some shocking exchanges between her family. At the same time, Burt is unable to deal with her emotional outbursts, retreating into a kindness that cannot mend all wounds. He can sense the feelings that Mitzi has for his friend Bernie (Seth Rogen) and how he makes her feel much more alive than he could ever dream. Their split is inevitable and it only becomes a matter of time to see how long they can keep up this facade to maintain a decent family life at home.
There are a lot of great scenes in the movie but there’s one very important one I can’t stop thinking about. At one point in the film, Sammy is visited by his grandfather Boris (Judd Hirsch), a man who worked in film. Being aware of the life of an artist, he can sense that same drive in Sammy with how the teenager showcases his work. Boris imparts a difficult bit of knowledge about the conflict between art and family, something that seems to be at constant odds that you may have to choose between them. It’s an aspect that Sammy wants to deny but he’s not quite sure how to counter. After all, Boris has lived through a life of art and seen how it ravages those who pursue it.
Despite how somber all that makes the film appear, there are a lot of sweet moments as well. Little moments of chipper camping trips, school dances, and first kisses are rather sweet and tender moments. There’s also a lot of meta-humor that permeates the picture the further it goes. During a high school dance where Sammy showcases his footage of students at the beach, Sammy’s bully finds himself conflicted about Sammy’s niceness in the portrayal. This leads to the bully threatening Sammy never to make a movie about this exchange between them. There’s also the surprise cameo at the end of the film that is such a hilarious and knowing way to end the film that I dare not spoil it here.
The Fabelmans is Spielberg at his finest. It tapes into nostalgic wonderment but breathes with a refreshing honesty about the awkwardness that comes with growing up and pursuing art. It’s more than just watching a filmmaker become inspired to create great cinema, although you do get a lot of that. It paints a powerful portrait of a family that loves each other, even if they can’t find the right ways to express their feelings. For Sammy, those feelings are best communicated through film.
Mark has been a professional film critic for over five years and a film lover all his life.