Film Review: The Fabelmans

By Matthew Moorcroft

Highest Recommendation

  • Directed by Steven Spielberg
  • Starring Gabriel LaBelle, Michelle Williams, Paul Dano, Seth Rogen
  • PG-13

If anybody was going to do a biopic on Steven Spielberg, it might as well be the man himself. And that’s pretty much what The Fabelmans is despite all of the names being changed around; this is pretty much as autobiographical as they come, and those in tune with Spielberg’s long and wide ranging career will likely pick up on what moments inspired what.

So, it can totally be easy to dismiss The Fabelmans as nothing more then a simple vanity project, a last hurrah for a director who has had nothing short of one of the most incredible careers in film history (even if it isn’t a last hurrah). But while this could have easily have been that and Spielberg would have been allowed to do so because of his reputation, The Fabelmans is more of a filmed therapy session, reconciling Spielberg’s own fraught past and trauma with his love of film and the creation of memory. It’s an intimate portrait of an artist being honest with themselves, keeping things murky and complicated while never forgetting the humanity that’s so key to the center of much of Spielberg’s work.

Indeed, it’s a humanist picture, presenting people as complicated personas of various emotions and feelings. This is reflected by Spielberg’s unique decision to frame half of the narrative equally around his parents and their struggles, as well as their eventual divorce. But you can’t really fault either party here for it, even if there is a clear “somebody screwed up” in the fine print, and that’s what makes te dynamics so compelling. Spielberg clearly has a lot of thoughts on the matter and it’s in a lot of ways him expanding on his thoughts about family and divorce from his other films by finally bringing that to screen. There is a great moment where Sammy, our stand in for Spielberg himself, witnesses the announcement of his parents divorce through the lens of a movie camera and here that moment is realized metatextually – almost as if Spielberg wishes that he could film those moments in retrospect.

But he can’t. And that’s real pain of reality that the film forces our lead to confront. Despite everything, real life just isn’t like the movies. There is no happy ending – though Sammy is able to follow his dream in the end, and it leads to the career that we do know – but everything else just goes on. Your family breaks apart. Your girlfriend leaves you. Those bullies aren’t confronted and still hate you. It’s that balance between memory and reality that Spielberg has always managed to really capture that’s in full force here maybe better then ever as he taps into the most intimate of stories possible.

And the usual suspects are all here for him. John Williams, Janusz Kaminski, Michael Kahn, Tony Kushner, and many others lend their efforts to a polished, technical masterwork from top to bottom. It’s not as flashy or nuts as last year’s magnetic West Side Story but it’s certainly equally as impressive – Spielberg’s blocking continues to be unparalleled in the business, and his command of the camera reaches some astronomical highs here, especially in a middle act that bounces around from moment to moment, becoming a slice of life story that makes you wish you would never leave.

Lots of this is carried by Dano and Williams, of course, who are as good as you would expect them to be in this, particularly Williams who is certainly making some bold choices performance wise but highlights her distant attitude compared to Dano’s more quiet, introspective yet in your face take. But it’s really newcomer Gabriel LaBelle who is pretty fantastic here, having to balance out a lot of the screentime himself as well a Sammy who goes through not just teenagehood but early adulthood with ease. And he’s more then up to the task, sometimes outshining the adults in the room, and allows the coming-of-age aspects of this coming-of-age story really work and standout.

It’s frankly rare that a movie just simply gets better as it goes on – though there have been many like this year, which shows the high bar of this year in particular – but The Fabelmans just keeps trucking along so strongly and ends on such a high note with a masterful final shot that it’s hard to not get fully invested in this. Sometimes a master really is just THAT good at what he does and Spielberg is one of those masters, and while time will tell if The Fabelmans is one of his all timers in a career of all timers, it’s certainly one of the best of the year and worth every second.

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