'The Fabelmans': Steven Spielberg's Personal Ode to His Youth and Cinema
There comes a time in every filmmaker's career where they make a highly personal film that reflects on topics such as their upbringing, coming-of-age, and the power of cinema. In the past couple of years alone, we have received films from Kenneth Branagh, James Gray, and Lee Isaac Chung that fall into this category. And now, legendary filmmaker Steven Spielberg has made his own highly personal look back into his past. It's no secret that Spielberg has been wanting to make a film that explores his youth and his introduction to film, as well as his relationship with his family, for some time now. With The Fabelmans, he finally brings his story to the screen, weaving a semi-autobiographical tale that is a heartbreaking family drama, funny coming-of-age film, and an uplifting ode to cinema and art rolled up in one.
The Fabelmans paints a portrait of a Jewish family living in post World War II America, as they all try to follow their dreams and passions. The film's main focus, however, is on young Sammy Fabelman (Gabriel LaBelle), a teenager with with aspirations of becoming a filmmaker. While honing his craft, Sammy discovers the true power of cinema, both as an art form an as a means of uncovering deep truths about life. Over the course of the film, Sammy balances his dreams of making movies with his real life issues, ranging from a secret within his family to dealing with anti-semitic bullies at school. The result is a highly resonant film about what it means to be a creator, and allows Spielberg to look back at some of the most difficult times of his life as a way of self-reckoning and reflection without romanticizing the past or coming across as self-aggrandizing.
For a director who puts a bit of himself into every single one of his films, The Fabelmans feels like the film that Steven Spielberg has been working towards for his entire career. This has been a long gestating project for him, and it is clear from the amount of care and detail that he and co-writer Tony Kushner put into the film that this was a labor of love. Spielberg wisely avoids falling into the trap of making the film overly-saccharine or nostalgic, as it may be a period piece, but the film doesn't get too hung up on former glories or "the good old days". If anything, the film pulls back the layers on some of Spielberg's more painful moments, from his complicated familial relationships, to a secret his mother is hiding from the family, to his awkward high school days. It never asserts Sammy as a hero, and Spielberg never feels like he is bragging on himself. It's rather earnest and more humble than one might expect, but with this being a Spielberg film, it is undoubtedly well-made and shows his immense talent.
Spielberg gets credit for practically inventing the summer blockbuster and for making major innovations in film. For me, one of his finest skills is how well he is able to show empathy and emotionality in his films. This has given him a bad rap as being too sweet or emotionally manipulative. While I can understand some of these criticisms, I also think that is what makes him such an effective filmmaker. He is able to pull off some of the most incredible spectacle you have ever seen, but some of his finest moments come from the more heartfelt and more affecting aspects of his films. With The Fabelmans, Spielberg scales down the spectacle and dials up the more emotional aspects of the film. That doesn't make the film any less beautiful to look at (more on this later) but it does bring his knack for portraying complex emotions in a more palatable way to the forefront.
Spielberg also often gets labeled as an optimistic filmmaker, and while I don't fully disagree with this, he doesn't get credit for how well he shows the darker sides of humanity and life. One of my favorite films of his, A.I. Artificial Intelligence, is perhaps the best example of this, as it dives headlong into heavier themes, and is arguably his most depressing film to date. There are shades of this in his other work, especially in his most recent output, but The Fabelmans stands out a bit more, largely because it is an original story that Spielberg co-wrote. Spielberg mines quite a bit from his own life, and isn't afraid to dig into the harsh realities of his upbringing. And yet, he never feels like he is martyring himself or begging the audience to feel sorry for him. Instead, he presents the film in a rather straightforward, matter of fact way that gives the film a bit more weight and allows the story to speak for itself a bit more. Make no mistake, there is a fair amount of heart in the film, but he does dive into rather potent topics, such as dysfunctional family life, parents not fully understanding your passion, and prejudice. It allows Spielberg to tell his story in a more self-effacing way, which only made me connect with the film, and especially the character of Sammy Fabelman, even more.
On that subject, the film's characters are well-drawn, as Spielberg is basing them off his own family members, but the casting is what really allows the characters to come to life. One of the most memorable scenes of the whole film involves a visit from Sammy's great uncle Boris, played by Judd Hirsch. Late at night, Boris and Sammy discuss the balance between art and family, and how they are constantly at odds with each other. This scene is a major focal point of the film, both in how it is a central idea of it, and in how it establishes the characters of both Boris and Sammy in a way that carries through the rest of the film. Hirsch is magnificent in this scene, and even though he is not in the film all that much, he leaves a major impact on it. Paul Dano is a bit of an undersung performance in this, as he is more reined in for the most part. He plays Sammy's dad, Burt, an engineer who specializes in computers. He is very methodical and intellectual, and Dano plays the specificity of his motivations and interests so well. It's maybe his quietest performance to date, but one that definitely deserves some credit.
Michelle Williams is arguably the "showiest" performance in the film, but even then, she's a bit restrained at times. She seems to be channelling a little Judy Garland, or perhaps Liza Minnelli, but this is not a bad thing in the slightest. She plays the more warmer, supportive attributes of Mitzi, Sammy's mother, so nicely, and has this levity at times that really charmed me. She does have some moments where she gets to break down, and she handles these scenes so well. Some might be put off by some the bigger, capital "A" acting she is doing, but I feel that it fits the character perfectly, and that Williams does a great job with the role. I also was quite impressed with Seth Rogen's performance as Bennie, a friend and business partner to Burt. Rogen has proven himself more than capable of turning in a great performance in a more serious film before in 2015's Steve Jobs. With this film, however, it allows him to strike a balance between his more gregarious comedic persona, and a more warmhearted avuncular one. He gets some good lines throughout, but a scene in which he and Sammy are talking outside a camera store was a massive highlight of his work here. It's one of his best performances, and shows his range as an actor so well.
The star of the film is none other than Gabriel LaBelle, who plays Sammy Fabelman. This is the first film I've ever seen LaBelle in, and this is definitely one of the best breakthrough performances of the year. LaBelle plays Sammy with such simplicity and detail, and delivers a fair amount of depth as well. He embodies Sammy with maturity and a sense that he is wise beyond his years. There is also this universality to the way he plays the character that makes him so easy to connect with, especially if you have ever struggled with your parents understanding your biggest passion in life. LaBelle is simply brilliant in the film, and I hope that this film allows him to take on other amazing opportunities in his career.
Two of Spielberg's most frequent collaborators also turn in some of their best work here. Janusz Kamiński once again works his magic with the camera, providing simple, yet beautiful cinematography that left me stunned. His best work comes through some of the compositions and use of light, but there are a few small touches here and there that I quite enjoyed. Not to mention that the film has one of the best final shots of the year, and left me with a big smile on my face. And then, there's John Williams, who delivers a simple, lovely score that some might downplay, but I thought it was perfect for this film. Williams is undoubtedly one of the greats, and while I love his big, sweeping, iconic scores, it's nice to hear something a little more sweeter and somewhat different from him.
The Fabelmans is a film that really rang true for me, as it is both an exploration of Spielberg's past and a coming-of-age tale about the power of cinema and how we use it to make sense of our own lives. It is undoubtedly Spielberg's most personal film to date, and it just might be one of his best films period. It's yet another excellent entry into his legendary filmography, and it blew me away. There are so many scenes in this film that will stick with me for time to come, and so many great details that I truly admire. It covers a wide range of emotions over its runtime, but it all comes together to make for a breathtaking film that should resonate with movie lovers, fans of Spielberg, and anyone who has ever struggled with their parents understanding their passion, among others. It is clear that Spielberg still has the goods, and this film acts as such a beautiful encapsulation of him as an artist, and as a person.