Steven Spielberg takes inspiration from his film-obsessed childhood in this sincere and perceptive coming-of-age story, family drama and ode to cinema.
January 05, 2023
"Movies are dreams that you never forget," says Mitzi Fabelman (Michelle Williams, Venom: Let There Be Carnage) early in Steven Spielberg's The Fabelmans. Have truer words ever been spoken in any of the director's 33 flicks? Uttered to her eight-year-old son Sammy (feature debutant Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord), Mitzi's statement lingers, providing the film's beating heart even when the coming-of-age tale it spins isn't always idyllic. Individual pictures can come and go, of course. Only some — including on America's most populist filmmaker's own resume, packed as it is with Jaws, Indiana Jones, E.T., Jurassic Park, West Side Story and the like — truly stand the test of time. But as Mitzi understands, and imparts to her on-screen Spielberg boyhood surrogate, movies as an art form are a dream that keeps beaming in our heads. We return to theatres again and again for more. We glue our eyes to films at home, too. We lap up the worlds they visit, stories they relay and fantasies they incite, and we eagerly add our own.
To everyone that's ever stared at the silver screen in awe and wonder, The Fabelmans pays tribute far more than it basks in the glow of its director. Because everyone is crafting cinematic autobiographies of sorts of late, Spielberg adds this tender yet clear-eyed look at his childhood to a growing list of similarly self-reflective flicks; however, he's as fascinated with cinema as a dream-sparking and -making force as is he with fictionalising and mythologising his own beginnings. Slot The Fabelmans in alongside James Gray's Armageddon Time, Kenneth Branagh's Belfast, Paul Thomas Anderson's Licorice Pizza and Alejandro González Iñárritu's Bardo, False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths from the past year or so, then, and easily. Don't consider it merely Spielberg jumping on a trend, though. This is a sincere, perceptive and potent movie about how movies act as a mirror — and a vividly shot and engagingly performed one, complete with a pitch-perfect late cameo that's pure cinephile heaven — whether we're watching or creating them.
First comes the viewing, as it does with us all no matter if we end up picking up a camera. While The Fabelmans charts Sammy's film fixation as it quickly expands from devouring celluloid dreams to fashioning them — giving Spielberg's career an origin story, clearly — that initial dalliance with the big screen in the 1950s couldn't be more pivotal. Heading to catch Cecil B DeMille's The Greatest Show on Earth with Mitzi and dad Burt (Paul Dano, The Batman), the boy is anxious. And, when his debut experience with cinema involves witnessing a train crash in the movie, he's haunted afterwards. The Fabelmans makes that obsession the source of nightmares as well as inspiration, but once Sammy begins working through and rewriting his feelings by restaging the scene using a model train set, plus capturing it on Burt's Super-8 camera, the latter wins out.
Both before and after Sammy hits his teen years (where he's played by The Predator's Gabriel LaBelle), The Fabelmans adores staging the wannabe filmmaker's DIY shoots. The horror of the dentist, mummies wrapped in toilet paper, westerns, war flicks: enlisting his sisters Natalie (Sweet Magnolias' Alina Brace as a kid, then Hunters' Keeley Karsten) and Reggie (Pivoting's Birdie Borria, then Once Upon a Time in Hollywood's Julia Butters), and his Boy Scout troupe, he's constantly filtering what he spies in darkened rooms into his enthusiastic work. There's a touch of Be Kind Rewind to these moments, joyously, but Spielberg highlights technique, too, such as Sammy's genius idea to make gunfights look more realistic. Cinema isn't just about storytelling, he reminds, but also science — even if career-minded computer engineer Burt can't see past the art, disapprovingly and to Mitzi's dismay, to the technique behind dolly tracks, camera angles that convey meaning and careful editing.
Every filmmaker wants their audience to forget they're watching a movie, getting so immersed that everything else fades from mind while the projector whirls, but Spielberg loves the dream as well as the method behind it. He highlights the push and pull between the two into The Fabelmans from the outset, from the instant that the young Sammy stands in the middle of the frame outside the cinema, putting his creative, emotive, ex-concert pianist mum on one side and his analytical, data-driven, workaholic dad on the other. That's a gorgeous and intelligent touch, benefiting from luminous lensing by Janusz Kamiński, Spielberg's regular cinematographer. As built into the screenplay co-penned with fellow returning collaborator Tony Kushner — the helmer's first script since 2001's A.I. Artificial Intelligence — it also speaks to the family chaos that keeps thrusting Sammy and the Fabelmans in an array of directions.
This movie isn't called Sammy, after all. Filmmaking is a communal experience — again whether you're enjoying the end result or toiling for it — and Sammy's pursuit of it doesn't occur in a vacuum. That maiden cinema visit wouldn't have happened without his mother and father. His response to it, right through to wanting to make the pictures his career, couldn't have either. Just like the nocturnal kind, cinema's reveries flow from an everyday reality, with The Fabelmans deeply invested in Sammy's. That spans hopping around the US following Burt's work, from New Jersey to Phoenix and then California; Mitzi and Burt's fragile chalk-and-cheese pairing, plus her obvious fondness for his best friend Bennie (Seth Rogen, Pam & Tommy); fitting in as a Jewish family amid antisemitism; words of wisdom from a long-lost uncle (Judd Hirsch, The Goldbergs) with a Hollywood background; high-school romances, bullying and other dramas; and sibling rivalries and complicated parent-child bonds.
As a memoir, The Fabelmans isn't nostalgic about anything except cinema's undying allure — crucially so for the film's performances. Spielberg's mother was a pianist. His dad was an engineer. They moved to same spots seen in the movie, and their relationship didn't survive the director's childhood. Every choice in The Fabelmans is warm, including the John Williams score, but that doesn't mean sweeping past Mitzi's unfulfilled professional and romantic desires, overlooking Burt's work focus or ignoring the restlessness simmering within the family. Embracing those complexities gives Williams, Dano and LaBelle ample fuel for thoughtful, moving and multi-layered portrayals that always feel personal. Playing your director's mum, dad or younger self isn't guaranteed to have that impact, but Spielberg's compassionate direction makes it a given. His clever, insightful, funny and oh-so-astute ending here also makes The Fabelmans unforgettable; "how would you like to meet the world's greatest director?" indeed.