Director: Steven Spielberg
Stars: Michelle Williams, Paul Dano, Gabriel LaBelle
Steven Spielberg has spent 50 years presenting us his wonders. Whip-cracking plunderers, aliens from outer space (both friendly and otherwise), musicals, fantasies, robots and more. Occasionally he’s even opened up a window into our troubled histories. With The Fabelmans, however, he turns the camera on himself. Any filmmaker as prolific as he’s been will have imprinted the work with autobiographical elements. These are the flexes that make Spielberg’s broad-stroke box-office blockbusters so uniquely his. But never has the man himself been so nakedly self-referential. This one feels like a biopic in all-but-name.
That word comes to mind again. Wonder. It’s used time and again with Spielberg, particularly in relation to some of the signature scenes in his films that have become iconic for the feelings they provoke. Think of the first time the visiting palaeontologists see the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park. That sense of emotional sweep that lifts the audience up into the moment. A movie memory is made.
Wonder is the driving force of The Fabelmans. When young Sam (Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord) is taken to the cinema for the first time to see the 1952 variety picture The Greatest Show on Earth he is dumbstruck, particularly awed/scarred by a hokey train crash sequence. Not yet 10-years-old, he becomes obsessed with recreating the moment with his own toys, prompting his artistically-minded mother Mitzi (Michelle Williams) to suggest making his own little movie. Having done so, Sam watches the images flash across his own fingers as the images are projected into his cradled hands – as singular an image as Spielberg has ever created to sum up the sense of awe and ownership we all feel with cinema. From here, Sam’s path is set, much to the disgruntlement of his loving yet practically-minded father Burt (Paul Dano).
Flashing forward, the film then charts formative teenage years for Sam (now Gabriel LaBelle). In particular the development of his flare for filmmaking and how this directly intersects and conflicts with the fracturing of the family home he also shares with three sisters. Family friend Benny (Seth Rogen) becomes a source of increasing tension for their unit. Sam’s own prolific work with a home movie camera contributes to this tension, exposing a more psychologically complex relationship to cinema than one might’ve expected from Spielberg. Indeed, the midsection of The Fabelmans sees the camera turned into a kind of loaded weapon, ruminating on the medium’s more dangerous powers.
If 2021’s West Side Story remake felt like a slightly stuttering recreation of turn-of-the-’60s America, Spielberg’s west coast remembrances strike a more authentic note. High school follies become an increasing concern in the second half here, particularly as Sam falls foul of some bullies corralled by gigantic jock Logan (Sam Rechner). Here the pervasiveness of casual antisemitism enters the picture, suggesting a personally rooted motivation to strike back with the likes of the searing Schindler’s List. Elsewhere, a school beach party – and Sam’s aversion to it – lightly prefigures Jaws. But The Fabelmans largely resists the temptation to dot its narrative with self-congratulatory winks to the future. This is a great strength. As ought to be expected from Spielberg, there’s an earnestness that walks a tightrope between sentimentality and simple generosity. The urge to share, the need to please. And the delight in having done so.
Not that The Fabelmans doesn’t lean hard into the kind of big-hitting emotions that have made Spielberg’s name while making him a target of quick dismissal. Tinged with melancholy though they may be (this is nostalgia, after all), these recreated family memories – especially at their happiest – are cradled in warmth with heads haloed in light. There’s a Brady Bunch sweetness to many of his recollections, particularly those that place his mother at their centre. One could have a Freudian field day over one indelible sequence at the peak of a fateful family camping trip. Williams is never less than committed to Spielberg’s Sirkian depiction of the wife and mother. LaBelle, for his part, impresses just as much, the more burden he has to carry.
Where to stop with a life so rich and filled with wonder? Spielberg and his co-writer Tony Kushner (a prior collaborator on a number of period pieces) smartly take us up to the first real promises of Sam’s career-to-come, and a surprise encounter on his first visit to a studio lot. If we had detached ourselves from how autobiographical The Fabelmans is intended to be, (which is difficult; LaBelle’s physical similarity to Spielberg is uncanny at times) we are playfully reminded in the final shot, which sees advice given to Sam hastily taken on board in the film’s most brazen wink to the audience. A kind of fourth-wall break achieved without anyone facing the camera. Having resisted such urges for two and a half hours, it feels like a curtain call from Spielberg. An acknowledgement and a bow in the final frames now that the show is over, achieved with ramshackle dexterity by his regular cinematographer Janusz Kaminski.
Don’t know what on earth I’m talking about? Call it a reason to go and see.
Cinema screenings of The Fabelmans feature a brief introduction from Spielberg thanking the audience for taking the time to see it in its intended place. The film’s disappointing box office in the US sticks the knife to this heartfelt intro a little. Young Sam’s rapturous first visit to the cinema remains the kernel out of which the rest of The Fabelmans – and the rest of Spielberg’s vast cinematic influence – grew. A dark room filled with huge ideas. Ideas that facilitate wonder. Spielberg, now 76, isn’t stopping. He’ll do this til he physically can’t. But were he to, this would be the perfect career capper, and probably his most abundantly cherishable work in well over a decade. Go.