“Family. Art. It will tear you in two.”
At the Toronto International Film Festival, director Steven Spielberg noted that “The Fabelmans” is his way of bringing his parents back from the dead. Steadfast and honest, “The Fabelmans” is an autobiographical look at Spielberg’s childhood, the humble beginnings of his passion for filmmaking, and the family that almost tore him in two. It is a masterclass in reminiscing about what made a kid from New Jersey, who spent his adolescence in Arizona, only to find his way to California in his teenage years, one of the most prolific cinematic geniuses of all time.
Gabriel LaBelle stars as Sammy Fabelman, the eldest teenage son of Mitzi (Michelle Williams), a skilled pianist, and Burt (Paul Dano), a computer engineer. The Fabelman family moves around a lot due to Burt’s career, but they are surrounded by love and friends like Bennie (Seth Rogen), Burt’s best friend and a surrogate uncle to Sammy and his siblings. Sammy becomes interested in movies at a very young age, playing with a train set and filming it crashing as a way to understand story composition and camera styles. As Sammy gets older, his interest in filmmaking becomes an obsession, to the point where he enlists his family and friends to star in movies he makes.
If any of this sounds vaguely familiar, it’s because Sammy is Spielberg in child form. “The Fabelmans” is Spielberg’s own journey of self-discovery, learning how to create valuable films while tinkering away with various editing techniques, lighting designs, and sound effects. Sammy’s fascination with directors like John Ford cements his desire to be among the greats, telling stories through an art form that Mitzi describes perfectly by reflecting, “movies are dreams that you never forget.”
But something lies underneath the humdrum lives of the Fabelman family. We see Sammy grow into a young Jewish man who dreams of success in the film industry while his father tries to convince him it’s just a hobby. As the matriarch, Mitzi is the dreamer of the family, often dancing to the beat of a tune in her head. The brief arrival of Mitzi’s uncle Boris (Judd Hirsch) is one of the funniest and most astounding cameos of the past few years, creating tension in Sammy’s world. A discovery while editing some film fuels Sammy’s realization that family and art could one day pull him apart.
By the time Sammy enters high school after a big move to Northern California, his outlook on life has declined dramatically. His attempts to fit in with other kids in his class are thwarted when he realizes that antisemitism runs rampant. Being one of the only Jewish kids in his school, Sammy is forced to make a name for himself outside of what other kids perceive as his religious identity, leading Sammy to date a Christian girl. Through it all, Sammy finds himself at a crossroads where he must determine the best path forward for his family, his faith, and his future.
Spielberg is a master filmmaker, giving audiences a treasure trove of vignettes and performances in “The Fabelmans” that rivals any awards contender this year. His heartfelt memoir tends to foreshadow many of the movies he’s well-known for in his career, most prominently “E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial,” which famously borrowed from Spielberg’s real-life dealing with the divorce of his parents. “The Fabelmans” goes deeper with that childhood trauma, as Spielberg takes the thing Sammy loves most and tarnishes it as his family’s destruction intersects with his passion for film at a very impressionable point in this young man’s life. It is an ode to dysfunctional family life at its most mainstream.
Michelle Williams is a standout in a movie that reflects many facets of a young mother’s life, catering to a reserved husband who finds joy in the mundane and attempting her own journey of self-reflection. Paul Dano is excellent as the shy father who works hard and deserves much more in life than he’s given. Gabriel LaBelle hits it out of the park with a lead performance that takes the audience from basic joy to a gut-wrenchingly emotional journey in a matter of 24 frames per second.
“The Fabelmans” is a masterpiece from a director who already has his fair share of masterpieces under his belt. Some critics will try to paint this movie like Kenneth Branagh’s “Belfast” from last year, where a filmmaker’s fixation with their own roots becomes a self-aggrandizing piece of art. I may show some bias as a Jewish man who grew up knowing movies were my passion, but trust me, this film is well worth the watch.
“The Fabelmans” is a cross-section of the two religions that govern Spielberg’s life: Judaism and Filmmaking. It tells a story of a fictional family heavily modeled on Spielberg’s own, depicting a universe that is fully responsible for creating one of the true geniuses in modern movies. It provides a window into the soul of a kid who dreamed of meeting his heroes, only to find that his trajectory was always towards film, no matter how many roadblocks were in his path.
Director Ron Shelton famously made “Bull Durham” as a way to introduce audiences to the Church of Baseball. Ron Shelton may have his Church, but in “The Fabelmans,” Steven Spielberg has his Temple of Film.
Ticket Rating: 🎟🎟🎟🎟🎟