In 1952, a young married couple took their eight-year-old son to see The Greatest Show on Earth, a film that terrified and fascinated him. Ten years later, that couple divorced after years of unhappiness, leaving a lasting impact on the now-sixteen-year-old boy. These are the major events in the life of Sammy Fabelman, the protagonist of The Fabelmans. Yet audiences understand it is far deeper than that. This is the origin story of Steven Spielberg, arguably the greatest American director. And in The Fabelmans, he puts this life story to film, and the events that turned him into what he is today. But The Fabelmans is far from an autobiographical puff piece – it is a love letter to cinema, to art, and to those who dream.
Sammy Fabelman (Gabriel LaBelle, played as a child by Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord) is the oldest child of Burt (Paul Dano) and Mitzi Fabelman (Michelle Williams). Burt is a no-nonsense logician working on the cutting edge of computer technology, Mitzi is a former concert pianist who gave it all up to raise her family. As Sammy grows older and begins to develop a passion for filmmaking, he simultaneously finds himself caught in the middle of his parents’ marital problems. As dark secrets emerge and Burt’s job takes the Jewish family further and further into the heart of WASP America, Sammy begins to understand the meaning of responsibility, family, art, and love.
What Spielberg has done here is rather extraordinary, and definitively proves his place as an American master. He has taken a story in the vein of Kramer vs. Kramer – the small, intimate portrayals his 70s blockbusters often had to compete with – and given them the respect and scope of an epic. And while these two genres are so often at odds, the deftness of his prowess makes it work, and work well. Spielberg manages to create a fully-functioning look into the mind of the artist, and the way art both strengthens and destroys one’s relationship to your family.
After all, Sammy’s filmmaking is the reason he learns a family-shattering secret about his mother, but it also gives him insight into a woman he never fully understood. Similarly, the art of filmmaking helps Sammy process his outsider status in a way therapy or family never could, from being caught between parents to surviving being the only Jew in a heavily-Christian society. It’s a way of working through fear and anxiety, like his childhood fear of train crashes or his Senior Day production both wins over and emotionally devastates the bullies that taunted him. As his Uncle Boris (Judd Hirsch) tells him, the pursuit of art will both fulfill and destroy him.
Yet what makes The Fabelmans so fascinating is not the way the movie shapes Spielberg’s family. Instead, it’s the way it explores the way his family shaped him – and more specifically, his movies. The Fabelmans explores the ways Sammy – and therefore, Spielberg himself – has become his parents, even if he resisted doing so for so long. Despite his parents’ flaws, from his mother’s deep unhappiness to his father’s inability to understand his son’s passions, they support him wholeheartedly, even going through great financial distress to do so. This support is paid back in their influence on the son they loved – that creativity and wonder comes straight from his mother, while the technical mastery he’s established as a director clearly comes from his father.
The Fabelmans utilizes every frame to not only tell a compelling story about art and creation and that beautiful, complicated struggle, but to show how that struggle is reflected in art, both metatextually and in Spielberg’s own oeuvre. It’s hard not to think of E.T. as a group of boy scouts rides their bikes to the local theater. And his family is there every step of the way to critique his ever-conflicted psyche, from the sister who sees him as selfish to the uncle who may, in fact, be a ghost, that warns him how f*cked up he’s about to become in pursuing art. This is a story about a young boy who never wanted to become either of his parents, learning that he is, in fact, both of them, and channeling that realization into pursuing and fulfilling his dreams.
Like most Spielbergian features, The Fabelmans draws in its audience by presenting a seemingly simple, deceptively deep narrative to an audience tailor-made for his sensibilities. Yet what keeps them in their seats is the way no one, quite frankly, can composite a film quite like the king. He has made a love letter to the magic of cinema that actually feels like magical cinema. Every frame reflects on that magical time many creatives spent in their backyards, trying to make our own homage to the films we grew up watching, destroying the items around the house in the process. It’s hard for this reviewer to not be won over watching young Sammy try to put together his own John Ford homage when my first film at the age of 6 was a (regrettably named) throwback to the same era of Westerns.
These moments are captured with some of the best cinematography of the year, with master cinematographer Janusz Kamiński rightfully returning to classical film stock to give this picture the weight it deserves. Spielberg and Kamiński continue their tradition of perfectly composited frames, yet their work here truly outdoes itself. One moment sees Sammy’s head illuminated by the film projector, perfectly captured in front of the screen. Later, there’s a terrific sequence where the three Fabelmans are at one of Sammy’s premieres, where his parents watch in awe while an acutely aware Sammy stoically watches them, looking for clues of marital dissolution. And in the film’s seminal image, a young Sammy cups the moving images he’s created in his young hands, trying to capture the beauty, horror, and majesty of art all for himself.
These moments indicate a revelation viewers will come to fairly early into the film’s runtime: that this is Spielberg’s best work in at least twenty years. He is firing on every cylinder imaginable. The film features some of the smartest editing the legend has ever accomplished, using cuts that both nostalgically and hauntingly reflect the passage of time – the cinematic equivalent of the song “Sunrise, Sunset.” The production design feels vast and real, giving an epic feel to suburban malaise. And the screenplay, written by Pulitzer-winner Tony Kushner and first-time writer Spielberg – is utterly superb. It’s funny, haunting, touching, earnest, and even self-reflective – the terrific Julia Butters’ character, a stand-in for Oscar-nominee Ann Spielberg, echoes long-standing criticisms of the director’s inability to craft strong female characters. The script, like every aspect of this film, is utterly masterful.
However, no matter how strong Spielberg’s direction may be, everything in this film hinges on his performers, blessed with the sacred gift of bringing the filmmaker’s troubled family to life. Thankfully, everyone brings their A-game, from Dano’s loving, but awkward father, who brilliantly captures the feeling of being an outsider in your own home, to Seth Rogen’s sarcastic friend of the family who plays an integral role in what’s to come. Butters shines, reminding everyone of why the teenager is one of the greatest child actors in the business, while Chloe East deserves an Oscar for her work as young Sammy’s very-Christian girlfriend, who fills a caricature with heart and life and nuance.
As for Michelle Williams, she poses an interesting conundrum. She’s good in the role, yet always feels like her performance is missing something. Perhaps it’s the fact she’s clearly playing an undiagnosed bipolar woman whom the film refuses to label as such? Or perhaps it’s the fact that, for maybe the first time in her career, she’s outshone by her costar, the young Gabriel Labelle, who at 19 gives one of the year’s most mesmerizing, heartwarming performances as the instantly relatable, lovably flawed Sammy. Either way, Williams makes up for anything lacking in her bigger moments with her commitment to the subtler sequences. No one – and I mean no one – working today can match her in the way she portrays subtlety onscreen.
I do want to take a moment to shout out two bit-time performers, legends in roles so small they basically amount to cameos, and yet loom large over the audience from the minute they march onscreen. The first has to be the great Judd Hirsch, who pops up as Uncle Boris, entering with a thunderclap. He’s in the movie for about ten minutes, explains the beauty of art and the struggle to balance that passion with family life (“You’ll shovel animal sh*t until the day you get to ride the elephant”), and by the time he leaves, I don’t exaggerate when I say my screening burst into applause. I’ve never seen that before, and may not again. The second cameo is by the great David Lynch, in a role I won’t spoil here but is utterly mesmerizing in both build-up and execution.
The Fabelmans is moviemaking at its finest. It is a reminder of what the visual medium can tell us, and how it can entertain, inform, titillate, disturb, and move you all at the same time. No person is going to come out of The Fabelmans with the same reaction. An artist will come away feeling seen by Sammy’s struggles, cinematic historians dazzled by the odes to yesteryear, and the Jewish community seen by Sammy’s struggles to assimilate in a country that still fails to give him the respect he’s due as a human. Everyone will be correct, because Steven Spielberg himself is no one thing. He is all of these, just as we all are multifaceted individuals. And in telling his life story, Spielberg has crafted a universal American experience for us all.
The Fabelmans will premiere on Peacock and VOD December 13th; it is currently playing in select theaters nationwide