“The Fabelmans” is a window into the life of a legendary filmmaker
“The Fabelmans,” director Steven Spielberg’s memoir and nostalgic origin story, is perhaps his most personal work. A chronicle of his relationship with movies, his family, and his complicated (sometimes discomfited) experience being a Jewish fish out of water.
His avatar here is Sam Fabelman (initially portrayed by the tongue-twisting Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord), the young son of a concert pianist mother, Mitzi (Michelle Williams), and his electrical engineer father, Burt (Paul Dano), while living in New Jersey in 1952. It’s Hanukkah, and they are in line to see a movie, Cecil B. DeMille’s “The Greatest Show on Earth.”
Sam is afraid because it is his first time, even after his father tries to calm his nerves by telling him that movies are only dreams, explaining the concept of persistence of vision—that a film is just a series of still pictures running at 24 frames per second that trick the eye and mind. When Sam witnesses a pivotal scene (where a miniature train collides with a miniature car on miniature railroad tracks), it blows his mind and sparks his fascination for movie magic.
Sam’s Hanukkah gifts become a series of Lionel train cars. Mitzi buys him an 8mm film camera. Burt buys him an editing machine. Sam wants to recreate and re-live the miraculous thing he had seen in the theater.
“The Fabelmans” takes us through the touchstone moments of Spielberg’s childhood, and as a budding filmmaker. It also takes us down the line of his upbringing, discovering the influence of his parents—one a warm, free-spirited artist, the other a cool, hyperintelligent man of logic. It feels like a hagiography of a flawed marriage between two people who did their best to fulfill their passions and impart their sensibilities to the children they loved.
This becomes more apparent with Mitzi as the story unwinds. Taking on the traditional mother role, setting aside her musical ambitions, whilst Burt, the head of the household, uproots them from New Jersey to Arizona and ultimately California in pursuit of a better job—their mental illnesses are largely implied. At one point, Mitzi adopts the monkey from “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” Obviously, not the same one. That guy must be dead by now. Just a bit of meta-referentialism for fans.
Burt is about as OCD as they come. All the while, Sam (later portrayed by Gabriel LaBelle for the bulk of the film) is a disaffected, passionate geek who is making movies as his own form of therapy, almost out of spite for his discontent with the truths he comes to discover about the stability of his family, girls, relationships, and the nature of the world.
It looks as sumptuous as you would expect, along with the pristine set and production design. Spielberg’s longtime director of photography, Janusz Kaminski, brings an atypical warmth to his cinematography. There is an arc in the eras, with the first act recalling the classic look of Frank Capra, where later, the tone changes along with the locale and scenery to resemble a John Ford Western, and eventually the tone of Spielberg’s colleague, Robert Zemekis. The closer it gets to our decades, the more modern the appearance becomes. When Sam is shooting his war movies in the desert in the early ‘60s, it’s hard not to recall the look of “Saving Private Ryan.”
But the performances are what make the story. Michelle Williams is at her career best, imbued by the internal topography of Mitzi, a complicated character, dealing with Eisenhower-era depression and dissatisfaction while holding a close secret that could sunder the family she truly loves. Paul Dano brings a wonderful intensity to Burt, a very internalized character, and a tightrope walk of an accessible, sympathetic yet reliably distant father.
Seth Rogen, as their best friend, Benny, delivers a grounded performance, one that pairs well with his goofy demeanor—paradoxically comical and complex. Judd Hirsch, as Sam’s uncle Boris, steals every second he is in, delivering an intense semi-soliloquy to Sam about the significance of artistic passion and the well of faith that will likely get Hirsch nominated for something. Jeannie Berlin, as Burt’s grandmother, is fantastic, killing with a deadpan humor that is nothing short of perfect. Not to mention another cameo in that realm, at the end, that I won’t spoil. It makes for the film’s best joke.
And Spielberg, writing here for the first time since “A.I.” (with often collaborator Tony Kushner) directs with a confidence that feels confessional. It is heartfelt and often funny (comedy not being his strong suit), and his trademark sentimentalism is regulated, without straying too far into saccharine introspection.
The influence of his mother, the artist being irrevocably tied to his father, the genius and anti-Semites (one of whom is memorably played by the Casper Van Dien-esque, Sam Rechner, who Spielberg humanizes in a way that turns “Starship Troopers” on its ear) does not feel like his critique of how or why everything happened. The main thing about “The Fabelmans” is that it is entirely about Spielberg’s life before he had any real control over it.
Of course, we all know how that turned out.
“The Fabelmans” opens nationwide on Nov. 23, 2022.