Fabelmans Review: One of Steven Spielberg’s best films tells its own story

Polygon has a team on the ground at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival reporting on the horror, comedy, drama and action films destined to dominate the film conversation as we head into awards season. This review was published in conjunction with the film’s TIFF premiere.

In an era obsessed with character origin stories, the first word on Steven Spielberg’s semi-autobiographical film The Fabelmans made it look like he was ready to join the film trend. But his crowd-pleasing, coming-of-age story doesn’t fit well in this box, or any other. His deeply personal narrative is not entirely an autobio, a rehash of the greatest hits of a single filmmaker’s career, or a clichéd ode to filmmaking. The Fabelmans it’s a vulnerable approach to the past, to heal a wound that seems still as tender as the day it opened decades ago, despite the bursts of comedy and measured thoughts on display.

Because at the center of almost every Spielberg film is the spirit of a boy, still grieving over his parents’ divorce, recording his grief on the vast sandbank of cinema. You can see this child’s pain unconsciously pouring out into the bickering characters of Mom and Dad from Close encounters of the third kind. It emerges in his family dynamics ET: the Alien. And it evolves into Catch Me If You Can, as Frank Abagnale seeks refuge in his mom’s second family home. But Spielberg has never approached his childhood as directly as he does in this new film.

Sometimes, The Fabelmans it feels more like an idealized daydream of what could have happened to him, often brushing aside the edges of the real world and the sheer anger he felt as the son of divorced parents. This is not a confessional story. It gives real-world figures a necessary grace, kind people only find after coming out the other side of a lifetime of editing. And it features a brand of craftsmanship — from the deliberate blocking to the controlled, clever camera movements — that only comes along when you’re, well, Steven Spielberg. Above all, it is an empathetic message from the director to his mother.

Spielberg teamed up once again with Tony Kushner (his partner in West Side Story, Lincolnand Munich) to develop the script. Their story begins with Burt (Paul Dano, in a terrific performance) and Mitzi Fabelman (Michelle Williams, in an impressive performance) taking in their young son Sammy (Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord in the early scenes and Gabriel LaBelle in the teenage sequence ) at the movies to see Cecil B. DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth. The images coming from the screen dazzle and excite Sammy. And a fiery wreck, in which a car is pinned, blood spurts and explosions fill the air, frightens him to the point where he obsessively replays the scene with his toy train rigged over and over.

To calm her son down, Mitzi lets Sammy borrow his dad’s camera so she can film the crash as a way to deal with his fears. What Mitzi really does, however, is spark a therapeutic love of filmmaking, creating a lens that will become Sammy’s tool to try to make sense of the world.

Sammy’s universe isn’t that complicated. Burt is a brilliant, workaholic computer engineer and Mitzi is a free-spirited, classically trained pianist. Sammy has three sisters: Reggie (Julia Butters), Natalie (Keeley Karsten) and Lisa (Sophia Kopera). The New Jersey house where they all live is the perfect incubator for Sammy’s imagination. In their tight-knit Jewish community, they observe Jewish traditions, share their cultural humor, and are often visited by relatives. (This is an extremely Jewish movie.) They also hang out with Burt’s best friend and co-worker, Bennie Loewy (Seth Rogen), a man who seems completely supportive of the couple, but whose flaws could one day turn him upside down. family. Constructing the compelling support system the Fabelmans enjoy in their neighborhood, Spielberg and Kushner’s assured script reveals the cracks created when the family leaves its familiar boundaries.

Bert is ambitious and selfish. First, he uproots his family and moves them to Arizona. Then he picks up sticks and heads for Northern California. The further west the family moves, the farther Sammy gets from his family and roots — which brings him closer to his artistic passions. This early setting, which consumes the first hour of this 151-minute personal essay, moves at a slow pace, with a position that is initially disorienting. How much of Spielberg is in Sammy? How much of what we see is imaginary? Why wasn’t it just called that The Spielbergs to save everyone a headache?

In one scene, Sammy and his fellow Eagle Scouts sneak into a movie. It is indicative that of John Ford The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance he plays. The film, starring Jimmy Stewart and John Wayne, centers on a local senator who recounts how his rise to power was fueled by a legend that he shot the famed outlaw, when in fact he did not. It’s a film about mythmaking, reinvention, and the American West as imperative to creating your own identity. The Fabelmans it works in a similar way: It’s not a beat-for-beat origin story, it’s a chance for Spielberg to reshape the past without the heavy burden of his name.

It also allows him to re-access the memory of his mother. In many ways, Sammy and Mitzi are exactly the same. Burt dismisses their artistic passions as hobbies. And Mitzi, in particular, has spent years sidelining her creative goals in favor of her husband’s rising career. In the words of Mitzi’s Uncle Boris (Judd Hirsch, who absolutely crushes his one scene), he could have played anywhere for any deal. Instead, she became a mother. Now, she and Sammy are looking for a way to overcome Burt’s idiosyncrasies. But the once-close bond shared by mother and son unravels when Sammy learns a disturbing secret about Mitzi (in a sequence elegantly assembled by Fabelmans editors Sarah Broshar and Michael Kahn) that causes him to temporarily lose his love for filmmaking.

Make no mistake though, The Fabelmans he is not handsome. A visual whimsy dances across the screen. Janusz Kaminski’s well-calibrated tracking shots and dazzling cinematography set the creative bar. References to Spielberg’s greatest hits add an edge to his own career. The scenes of Sammy first shooting simple shorts, then graduating to decent-sized, self-made war films, are appealing enough to make an entire audience want to get into amateur filmmaking. And at Sammy’s new high school in Los Angeles, he falls in love with a Christian girl, Monica (Chloe East), whose efforts to convert Sammy provide rambling prayers that double as euphemisms.

The movie poster for The Fabelmans, depicting various scenes from the movie surrounding a single silhouetted figure moving through a movie studio

Image: Universal Pictures

And yet the sense of betrayal a child feels after a divorce drives this film. That’s where LaBelle shines as teenage Sammy. He doesn’t just mimic Spielberg’s speech cadence and body language. It goes beyond the simple artifice of portraying Sammy as a spontaneous, unathletic and dumb kid first and Spielberg second. Nowhere is this more palpable than when Sammy confronts his anti-Semitic bullies with the power of theatrical experience. This is a movie that seriously loves watching people watch movies: It loves the inner machinations, the hypnotic awe, and the revelatory truths that happen when people see themselves on screen. LaBelle underpins these scenes with an honesty that doesn’t come off as crazy, but as euphoric and infectious.

And while LaBelle is great in his own right, he discovers another level when playing opposite a red-hot Williams and a thin but powerful Dano. (The character work done here is some of his best.) Williams, as the trapped housewife, gives a free-spirited performance that could be described as unbelievably brilliant in its rawness and rawness, if she weren’t just doing it. Williams perfectly conveys the feeling of a woman on the verge of breaking up, until she remembers that she is not her dreams or happiness to be shredded.

But Spielberg takes a refreshing tactic by making sure not to paint either Burt or Mitchie as outright villains. They are complicated people with indifferent needs that they cannot fulfill while living together. This is Sammy who understands the ambiguity of growing up. This is Spielberg embracing it so he can see his mother as a valid person in her own right.

At the end of the film – which includes a too-hilarious-to-describe David Lynch as John Ford – Sammy skips several studios knowing his troubles are behind him and his future is right in front of him. The Fabelmans it’s Spielberg exercising his vast knowledge of cinema to craft a story where his entire heart is glued to the screen. It’s a gorgeous, evocative, thrilling blockbuster, perfectly tuned to remind viewers of the power a film can hold.

The Fabelmans will open in limited release on November 11th, with a wide release on November 23rd.

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