By George Bate and Josh Reilly B.
Steven Spielberg has been one of, if not the, most accomplished directors of all time. From Raiders of the Lost Ark to Jaws to Schindler’s List, Spielberg has shown an undying love for cinema in every film he has been involved in. But arguably no film in his filmography is as personal as his most recent effort The Fabelmans.
The Fabelmans is a semi-autobiographical chronicle of Spielberg’s upbringing and how he grew to love cinema and moviemaking. Relative newcomer Gabriel LaBelle plays an adolescent Sammy, the stand-in for young Spielberg, while Michelle Williams and Paul Dano portray Sammy’s parents.
The Fablemans begins with a nervous, young Sammy waiting outside a movie theater with his parents. Sammy has never seen a movie before and is frightened of the “big people” on the screen and the darkness of the room they’re in. After Sammy’s parents provide some touching reassurance to Sammy, they enter the theater and sit down to watch Cecil B. DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth. As an audience, we watch bright-eyed Sammy sit in the theater and soak in every jaw-dropping part of a terrific train crash sequence. This moment sparks Sammy’s love for film and sets off the course of events in The Fabelmans and in Spielberg’s real life. And it’s with these opening 15 minutes or so that it becomes clear how touching and important of a film The Fabelmans is. The young Sammy is gifted a train set and, soon after, a camera of his own to craft his own train crash sequence. Any movie fan or so called ‘film buff’ will be entranced by The Fabelmans from the get-go and resonate greatly with the gargantuan effect a single moment in a single film can have on one’s life, as seen with Sammy.
Spielberg’s film is the ultimate love letter to cinema. Sammy’s growing passion for film is infectious and will undoubtedly rekindle thoughts and emotions of one’s own love for cinema as a child. The Fabelmans is, ultimately, about the relationship between art and family, something that is beautifully summarized by Judd Hirsch in his brief role in the film. There isn’t a rigid narrative here per se, but, rather, a logical unfolding of events that incrementally shows Sammy’s growing love for movies that is far beyond a mere hobby.
As touching and relatable as the film is, it is also informative in the way in which it peeks behind the curtain of Spielberg’s upbringing and burgeoning passion for filmmaking. Never has Spielberg been so personal and forthcoming with his work. Of note, Spielberg originally conceived of this project with his sister Anne in 1999, but withheld from pursuing it further as he held reservations about how the personal and emotional content of the film would affect his parents. In watching The Fabelmans, Spielberg does not shy away from spotlighting some of the more difficult aspects of his childhood, but does so in a way that is out of genuine love and never makes a given character (i.e., adaptation of a real person) a villain. Whether it be anti-Semitisim, or financial ruin, or divorce, Spielberg doesn’t shy away from difficult topics here.
Despite its exploration of serious themes of family and art, Spielberg never loses his magic touch of warmth and humor. The Fabelmans is genuinely funny, and it’s clear Spielberg had a blast as he reminisced about the ups and downs of his childhood. And, perhaps best of all, Spielberg crafted a film that is unreservedly endearing and relatable.
The Fabelmans is elevated by strong performances throughout. Michelle Williams plays Mitzi Fabelman, Sammy’s mother, while Paul Dano plays Sammy’s father Burt Fabelman. Williams portrays Mitzi with an infectious energy and likability, with a touching undercurrent of vulnerability. Dano is a stark contrast from his role as The Riddler in this year’s The Batman as he plays a wholesome, somewhat naive father and husband. Newcomer Gabriel LaBelle stands his ground amidst the heavy-hitting performances and shows that he has a promising career to come after playing the young Spielberg character.
Most notably, however, in regards to performances are two cameo appearances. Judd Hirsch plays Boris Schildkraut, Sammy’s granduncle who arrives in town with stories of his work as a circus lion tamer and film worker. David Lynch, smoking a cigar and sporting an eye patch, plays iconic director John Ford, whose work Sammy looked upon fondly. Hirsch and Lynch’s cameo appearances are worth the price of admission alone. Their unique, limited roles in the film have lasting impacts and reflect the perfect blend of humor and heartfelt that Spielberg executes so perfectly in his films.
The Fabelmans proves that the legendary Steven Spielberg has most certainly not lost his magic touch. A deeply intimate journey into Spielberg’s past, his latest film is a beautiful love letter to the art of film that will undoubtedly resonate with so many moviegoers. Deftly exploring difficult topics of anti-Semitisim, divorce, the conflict between family and art, and financial problems, Spielberg demonstrates a seamless blend of warmth and endearment with serious reflection. Cameos from Judd Hirsch and David Lynch are icing on the cake of what is easily one of 2022’s best films.