Steven Spielberg is one of the most lauded filmmakers in history. His form of filmmaking ushered in the era of the blockbuster and changed cinema forever. These types of films are spectacles that can only truly be appreciated on the big screen. In The Fabelmans, which is loosely based on Spielberg’s life growing up in post-WWII Arizona, we get to witness the genesis of Spielberg's love for cinema.
The film, directed by Spielberg, follows Sammy Fabelman from the age of seven to eighteen. Starting out as an exercise in control, Sammy's obsession with crashing his train set evolves into a love for making films, which is encouraged by his mother Mitzi. When she gives him his first camera, she lets him know what he’s trying to achieve is called a “persistence of vision”.
Mitzi has an artistic spirit just like Sammy does but because she doesn’t have a real outlet for it, it morphs her into a person who frequently needs to be the center of attention. Michelle Williams is mesmerizing as a mother who loves her family but has an artistry that’s been hampered. Young Sammy is played by sweet-faced Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord whose expressions of wonder are signature Spielbergian. Spielberg often associates innocence with having a magical quality in his films. The Fabelmans shows us how the magic of his youth synchronized with the magic of filmmaking to create the beloved filmmaker we know today.
The Fabelmans doesn’t just cover the power of family and Sammy’s burgeoning love for filmmaking. It also demonstrates the power of the camera. It cannot only create, it can reveal. When he’s putting together his family’s camping trip film, a layer of his mother is disclosed. Splicing the images together, like playing an advanced game of Hitori, allows him to see a shocking truth.
The cast is phenomenal and makes for a wonderfully dysfunctional family. Michelle Williams as Mitzi Fabelman is a lifeforce. At times self-centered but always loving, she’s the adventurous one in the family. Paul Dano is superb as Burt Fabelman, the perfect Middle America dad. His contained performance perfectly illustrates Burt’s struggle to be the free spirit Mitzi is. He’s very cerebral and methodical while she’s obviously more artistic. They’re like oil and vinegar but he’s too much in his own world to see it. Seth Rogan as Burt's friend Bennie is steadfastly comical. Gabrielle LaBelle shines as the teen Sammy, an amalgam of curiosity and determination. Judd Hirsch is frightening and enlightening as Uncle Boris. The denouement with David Lynch as John Ford is a delicious cherry on top for this love letter to cinema from one of cinema’s best. It’s like his care package to an industry that’s raised and fed him, on all levels.
The name of the family, Fabelmans, alludes to storytelling. Fables are “fictional stories, poems or prose, with a specific moral or lesson that is conveyed to the reader.” The lesson of this movie is to always be true to your heart. Mitzi finally follows her heart and Sammy does too with both being the wiser and happier for it. The script, by Spielberg and award-winner Tony Kushner, is a nod to Spielberg’s style of filmmaking and a tribute to the beauty and art of cinema. The lush score by John Williams and the crisp, tony cinematography of Janusz Kaminski round out a thriving acerate of love, family, and destiny.
This film is very personal to Spielberg, which is apparent in the gentle feel of nostalgia. Delving into the early years of one of America’s favorite filmmakers shows us his journey is our journey because the world is never short of wonder.
This Universal Pictures release opens wide in cinemas on November 23, 2022.