Because it’s directly inspired by the events of his adolescence, The Fabelmans is indisputably the most personal film of Steven Spielberg’s career—but only by a matter of degrees. Even if he didn’t know it at the time, Spielberg made E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial to exorcise the emotional trauma of his parents’ divorce decades earlier. When he directed Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom, he channeled the misanthropic energy from his first marriage into its depiction of Willie Scott. Schindler’s List was a reckoning with his Jewish heritage. War Of The Worlds was the reaction through his work to 9/11. And this film brings full circle that commingling of his life and his art in a way that celebrates both the medium to which he’s devoted himself and the experiences that inspired his creative endeavors.
Unsurprisingly, it’s fantastic. The Fabelmans is a measured and incredibly intimate look at Spielberg’s upbringing as he developed his aptitude for storytelling through a medium that mesmerized him since the night he went to see The Greatest Show On Earth as a child. It also spotlights cinema as an extraordinary device that not only unveils powerful truths, but often shapes them as well.
From that fateful movie screening he was almost too afraid to attend, Sammy Fabelman (Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord as a 7-year-old, Gabriel LaBelle at 16) is obsessed with moviemaking. He recreates Greatest Show’s crash with his Hannukah gift of a train set, and quickly graduates to amateur productions starring his younger sisters Reggie (Julia Butters), Natalie (Keeley Karsten), and Lisa (Sophia Kopera) in a variety of genres. His mother Mitzi (Michelle Williams), a concert pianist-turned-housewife, nurtures his gifts and loves his films, while his father Burt (Paul Dano), a computer engineer, politely tolerates them as a hobby before expecting him to move on to more serious endeavors. As Sammy gets older, the art-versus-science rift in his household only grows, especially after Burt lands a series of promotions that force the family to move to Arizona.
Burt placates a restless Mitzi by inviting his co-worker and both his and Mitzi’s best friend Bennie (Seth Rogen) to join them in Arizona as he ascends the corporate ladder. Even so, it becomes increasingly clear that Sammy’s parents are drifting further apart from one another, even as he develops some inventive techniques to make his amateur productions look bigger and more expansive. But when Burt asks him to edit together a film about a family trip to alleviate Mitzi’s grief over the loss of a loved one, Sammy discovers details about his mother that shatters his already-uneven sense of comfort in the dysfunctional Fabelman household.
The survival of a marriage led by two people of opposite dispositions is hardly the stuff of superhero mythmaking—at least as far as spoilers are concerned—but Spielberg allows its deterioration to unfold with desperate, suspenseful disbelief through Sammy’s eyes. As the oldest child, his understanding of the adult world develops earlier than his siblings’, but that doesn’t mean he’s prepared to deal maturely with the information that he learns. Retracing the footage of a fateful camping trip, Sammy cycles through it like it’s the Zapruder film, watching each moment unfold with horror and confusion. His astute, intuitive camera captures a lot more than he was expecting, and in fact something he never wanted, and develops a more complicated relationship with his art as a consequence of what it teaches him.
That he eventually uses that knowledge to shape the experience he wants viewers of his films to have is not only exhilarating for cinephiles, but it showcases the relationship between the audience and the images on screen better almost than any film in years. Specifically—although not necessarily uniquely to this film, of all of Spielberg’s—he repeatedly films the reactions of the audience first, before showing us what they are watching (if ever). This sense of spectatorship, of communal viewing, undoubtedly feels nostalgic, even outdated in an era of streaming, but he’s not simply evangelizing the theatrical experience. He’s depicting a relationship between image and observer that is every bit as vital as the ones between characters, as an invisible but crucial conveyance for communicating emotion—which again is something Spielberg has mastered better than almost any living filmmaker.
As Mitzi, Williams creates a character who’s flighty and unpredictable enough to justify young Sammy’s frustrations with her, and yet grounded and earnest enough for us to understand her frustrations with, well, the life to which she’s become shackled. She’s both a good and supportive parent and someone who deprioritized her own ambitions to raise her children, and Williams makes her complex and lovable even as she’s driving her family crazy. Dano, meanwhile, makes being smart, subdued, and devoted look good; whether or not he’s truly oblivious to the changing dynamic in his familial relationships, Burt leans on his job and his math skills as a finite solution to the larger existential problems of life, and Dano gives him a depth and humanity that’s multidimensional.
But it’s LaBelle as teenage Sammy who anchors the film with his suitably mercurial responses to the world changing around him, and also conveys the thrill that young Spielberg must have felt to cut images together and take audiences on a journey. Enabled by a supporting turn from Once Upon A Time In Hollywood scene-stealer Julia Butters as his younger sister (proving she’s going to steal many more for years to come), LaBelle communicates in both his joy and his outrage how tight-knit a family Spielberg’s must have felt like when he was a child, and how disruptive (and deep-rooted) the friction would become.
Then again, as skillful and authoritative as the actors are in their roles, you watch the opening scenes where seven-year-old Sammy stages a miniature train wreck for the camera and realize that they’re the exact same kind of playthings to him—a method since all the way back then to control something that in life he simply cannot. Longtime cinematographer Janusz Kaminski is thankfully still on the muted high of his work from West Side Story, and he mostly lights their lives in naturalistic tones instead of the blown-out, sub-Robert Richardson style he employed in recent years. But from the first frame to the last, this film feels like both the one that Spielberg controlled most closely, and also was in control while making.
There’s a scene in which young Sammy, after being bullied at his new school for being Jewish, valorizes his athletic, popular classmate, Logan (Sam Rechner) in a student film about a senior class trip. The young man should be thrilled—his friends and fellow students justifiably look at him like a hero—but he’s unsettled enough to confront Sammy about it afterwards, almost feeling bad for the hagriographic depiction. Sammy can’t explain why he cut the film that way, but the fact that he turned a triumphant moment into a mirror reflecting Logan’s own insecurities speaks to how Spielberg, and film itself, can capture the essence of a character or a moment, and cut into it further than a critique. The Fabelmans is a nostalgic depiction of his family that unearths pain and discomfort, and a refashioning of real events to extract more profound truths. We should all be so lucky, and fearless, to be able to look at our lives in the same way, but until then Spielberg is thankfully here to do it for us.