Over his long and incredibly prolific career, Steven Spielberg shows yet another side to his own filmmaking that only reaffirms his status as one of the greatest working American filmmakers. To a filmmaker like Steven Spielberg, merely watching the movies alone isn’t a magical experience, but the building blocks for making them are just as magical – and have shaped an entire world for him. But the greatest thrill about watching Spielberg taking his audience to his own childhood is that for those of us who have been watching his films for so long, he’s showing us where everything we loved about his works has come about, in a work that’s clearly an extension of himself in The Fabelmans.
A semi-autobiographical take on Steven Spielberg’s own childhood, The Fabelmans tells the story of Sammy Fabelman (Gabriel LaBelle), who discovered his own love for film when he was taken to see The Greatest Show on Earth by his parents Mitzi and Burt (Michelle Williams and Paul Dano). Through Sammy’s childhood and teenage years, he continued making films with his family, but they also paved how he had seen the world around himself, as he continually made friends through his dedication to the art. But as film showed itself to be his gateway to the world around himself, it also shattered the image of what he once saw as a perfect family – leading into another familiar area we’ve seen throughout most of Steven Spielberg’s work.
Recently, as we’ve seen a wave of filmmakers every year making semi-autobiographical works that were inspired in part by their own childhood, whether they be Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma, Lee Isaac Chung’s Minari, or Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast, there’s something beautiful that I find about seeing this perspective from someone like Steven Spielberg. In The Fabelmans, Spielberg makes it evident from the first moment onward that film was his way of life. Film was his gateway to the world, and it was the one thing that allowed him to connect with those around him. This is where I find that The Fabelmans feels like it’s so deeply intimate, because it’s easy to watch something like this as a lover of film and have that connection with what it means for Spielberg.
While it’s very much Spielberg telling his story as someone who loved film and grew up in a Jewish household, Spielberg also remains in touch with the childlike perspective and naivete, so as to not simply come off as purely nostalgic. His parents are painted akin to saintly figures, but as a child it’s easy to see your parents as such, to a point where any small rifts between that image of perfection can simply shatter you. This is where some of the film’s most heartbreaking moments come about, especially between the young Sammy and his surrogate uncle Ben, as portrayed by Seth Rogen, in a career best for the traditionally comedic actor. While I’ve always believed that Rogen was a great dramatic actor, it’s his role in The Fabelmans that feels like he’s showing everything he’s capable of – as a kindly figure who wants nothing but the best for the people he loves, even as that rift intensifies.
Yet going back to Spielberg’s saintly portrayals of his parents, it goes to show how these aspects of his life would in turn go on to create many of his most famous trademarks. Whether you have the angle of divorced parents or children coming to discover the world for themselves (both of which are perfectly represented through E.T., which also is called back to in a scene of Sammy biking together with his friends), there’s never a moment in which it feels so overtly sentimental – yet even if this were the case, a filmmaker who had been known for this like Spielberg, has more than earned the right to look at his parents within such a sentimental light. This in turn is what makes the film’s portrayal of his childhood resonate greatly, because he clearly loves the two of them so much, and to see aspects he could never be made to understand, coming back to the power of his movie making, had only left him broken long since. In turn, it also results in incredible performances from both Michelle Williams and Paul Dano.
I think that something like The Fabelmans finds itself resonating with many aspiring filmmakers, especially if you’re someone coming from a working-class background, because over the years, film can show itself to become a very expensive and competitive field to work within. Though even as Spielberg may have been told that he cannot always find success within the field, it’s the way that The Fabelmans depicts his determinism to make something great that ultimately persuades him to keep going. In The Fabelmans, it’s established that putting your heart into something that could get you ahead of those around yourself will break you apart from them in turn, emphasized within a very moving moment with Judd Hirsch. To that end, it’s also where Spielberg turns very self-reflective, serving as a moment where he’s thinking back to what he would have wanted his family at the time to have been like, had they been unanimously supportive of his passion for film.
What’s most important to the success of The Fabelmans, is that Spielberg never portrays his own self as being ahead of everyone else, even the viewers. As a child, he simply loved and wanted to make movies, but in his teenage years, the happiness slowly disappeared as he was also bullied by many others, even experiencing anti-Semitism in his high school. This part of his own life is especially important to note, because of how it has informed his decisions to make certain films later within his life. It is representative of Steven Spielberg putting his entire heart and soul into The Fabelmans, showing how even he didn’t always find himself within the lofty position where most film lovers would see him now. As Spielberg’s own onscreen counterpart, newcomer Gabriel LaBelle is a star in the making, hitting every note that allows oneself to see them within his shoes, as Spielberg wanted you to experience his life.
There’s another moment worth highlighting, as it was talked about by many in the days leading up to the film’s premiere: a scene depicting David Lynch as the acclaimed Oscar-winning filmmaker John Ford. For Spielberg, John Ford’s films were hugely inspirational, but knowing his attitude from interviews, it makes for a particularly memorable moment. For one, Lynch’s performance as Ford is incredibly funny, but in a moment where you’d see Spielberg meeting one of his own childhood idols, you can easily come to see this as a moment for him to think about how simply trying to impress his idols with what he knows wouldn’t cut it – but it can place you in a new position where you have a greater sense of what you want to do with what you have, in a beautiful final message for the aspiring filmmaker in many.
To say this is the best that Steven Spielberg has been in recent memory, I find, would undersell The Fabelmans. It is Steven Spielberg coming to show you everything that made him the filmmaker that we have known and loved him over the years for. It speaks both to the film lover and the aspiring filmmaker in many people, but also to how the determinism to make something great out of what you have, will ultimately result in something so beautiful coming out of you in your future. It’s all so beautiful, and wonderful from every aspect, from the cinematography of Janusz Kaminski and what might be Spielberg’s final collaboration with John Williams, it is just perfectly crafted all around. For a filmmaker like Steven Spielberg to use his childhood as a fable for the great artist in many isn’t him showing a saintly portrait of his life, but it feels like the perfect call for future filmmakers to make the film that they’ve always wanted to make.
Watch the trailer right here.
All images via Universal.
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Screenplay by Steven Spielberg, Tony Kushner
Produced by Kristie Macosko Krieger, Steven Spielberg, Tony Kushner
Starring Michelle Williams, Paul Dano, Seth Rogen, Gabriel LaBelle, Judd Hirsch, David Lynch
Running Time: 151 minutes
Release Date: November 23, 2022