Steven Spielberg Digs into His Past for an Emotional New Drama
The Director has made an intensely personal drama, starring Michelle Williams, Paul Dano, Gabriel LaBelle and Seth Rogen.
Opening in theaters in limited release on November 11th (ahead of a wider screen count around Thanksgiving), ‘The Fabelmans’ marks Steven Spielberg’s most autobiographical film to date. And it’s a masterclass in digging out emotion from the smallest moments while also serving as a pean to the power of cinema.
The director has never been shy about infusing himself, particularly his youthful inspirations, into his movies. ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’, for example, is he and George Lucas pouring their obsession with classic serials into a new adventure series.
But none of them are quite as close to the filmmaker’s actual background than ‘The Fabelmans’, which sees Spielberg making a rare foray into also co-writing the script with regular collaborator Tony Kushner.
Inspired by Spielberg’s own childhood and young adulthood in Arizona, the movie kicks off initially in New Jersey, where young Sammy Fabelman (with Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord playing him at age seven before Gabriel LaBelle takes over for his troubled teenage years) has his eyes opened and his mind slightly blown by 1952’s ‘The Greatest Show on Earth’.
Though he’s also scared by the experience, it leaves a stamp on his soul and he becomes fascinated with recreating the train crash from the movie. It’s a passion that is indulged by his mother Mitzi (Michelle Williams), a pianist who has put her own dreams on hold to support her husband (Paul Dano’s Burt) and who realizes that her son has a giant creative streak that mirrors her own.
Burt, meanwhile, a successful, genius computer engineer, sees his son’s cinematic focus as a hobby that should be put aside alongside other childhood things as Sammy grows up. And the clash between art and science is one that only intensifies, especially when Burt moves the family to Arizona so he can take a big new job.
Uprooted and in a new school, Sammy goes through some familiar life moments – he falls for a girl, is a nerd bullied by jocks and starts to figure out who he should be. His love of moviemaking only grows, and in the recreation of some of Spielberg’s own youthful experiments, the movie comes truly comes to life. Showing both the process and the result, the home movies boast more impressive filmmaking than some of the blockbusters in theaters this summer.
Which is not to say that the family drama is shortchanged. Far from it; with established actors such as Williams, Dano and Seth Rogen surrounded by a well-cast supporting group of largely young newcomers, the Fabelmans are a compelling brood.
Burt is quiet and logical, while Mitzi is wild and dramatic, passionate and driven, but also haunted by addiction issues and depression. It could all come across as cliché, but Spielberg and his cast dig into the real feelings that swirl.
And despite the surface appearance of domestic bliss, this family has deeper problems – Mitzi is in love with Burt’s best friend Bennie, who serves as a de facto uncle to the kids. She lobbies to have him move with them to Arizona, but it’s Sammy’s home movies that eventually reveal the truth.
His camera skills also come into play towards the end of the movie, where Sammy is tasked with filming his high school year’s “ditch day” at the beach, which once again brings him into contact with his primary antagonist, Logan (Sam Rechner), a jock who ruthlessly torments young Sammy and is confused – and therefore upset – when Sammy lionizes him in the ditch day film shown at their senior prom.
After a clash, Logan stalks away, and Spielberg offers probably the heaviest wink towards this being his story, as Sammy offers that it’s not like he can’t make a movie to have the last laugh. Which is just what Spielberg has done.
There are plenty of laughs to be found in ‘The Fabelmans,’ but the director is also unafraid to probe deeply into the trauma too. While some might have used a movie like this to lionize themselves and their family, Spielberg instead focuses on the pain that surrounded the wonder.
Dano and Williams are, of course, excellent, the latter handed the juiciest role while the former does a lot with the quietly logical father figure whose influence continues to resonate through his son’s career.
LaBelle, as our primary focus, is also impressive, carrying the weight of this complicated character ably, no easy task when you’re bringing to life a version of the director guiding your performance. You can only imagine the pressure he must have been under, even with a good-natured sort such as Spielberg.
Yet his Sammy is a watchable protagonist, and you’ll experience the highs and lows in his life right alongside him.
Rogen, meanwhile, in a smaller role as Benny, nevertheless delivers a funny, emotional role fairly far removed from his usual gross-out work.
And talking of smaller roles, a cameo by Judd Hirsch as Sammy’s estranged great-uncle, Boris appears for roughly two scenes but dominates every moment he’s on screen with magnetic, cranky energy. “Family, art, life – it will tear you in two,” Boris, who claims to have his own film world experience, tells Sam. “It will tear your heart out and leave you lonely.”
‘The Fabelmans’ might not quite tear your heart out, but it will certainly engage it. And it’s infused with a real love of the cinema in way that another upcoming release – Sam Mendes’ ‘Empire of Light’ – never quite reaches.
Steven Spielberg has (mostly) laid his life bare in a way that many in Hollywood wouldn’t dare, and though the result doesn’t boast giant dinosaurs or alien spaceships landing (well, except on a slightly cheaper scale), it’s definitely one of his best.
‘The Fabelmans receives 4 out of 5 stars.