The butterflies in the stomach from the anticipation of a new Steven Spielberg movie are a singular feeling. No matter how spotted his recent pictures have been, there’s always the promise of something special around the corner. After all, he has given us some of the greatest movies of all time. In the 21st century, Spielberg’s steady output has formed a sort of quality parabola, with many filmgoers remarking that his best days were behind him as he started to release movies like The Terminal, Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, War Horse, and The BFG. In Spielberg’s multi-decade career, there have been plenty of rough spots and patches among the classics. In the last two decades, it hasn’t been all a downward trajectory. There have been bright spots. Coincidentally, the consensus around almost all those bright spots is writer Tony Kushner (Munich, Lincoln, West Side Story, and The Fabelmans).
Kushner is the secret sauce that has given late-period Spielberg his new tank of gas. Spielberg entrusted Kushner with notes and memories from his childhood to help him craft his first screenplay since A.I. Artificial Intelligence. After losing both his parents, Spielberg began to reminisce about his youth. The pandemic gave him ample time to think, write, and solidify the basis for what would become The Fabelmans, an exploration of how he first began making movies and the way that passion intersected with the dissolution of his parents marriage.
The recent trend of old master filmmakers making movies about their youth gives The Fabelmans a bit of an unfortunate disadvantage, as it can seemingly be easily written off as a self-indulgent navel-gazing diatribe on the magic of cinema. The magic of this movie is that it isn’t concerned with such simplicities. Its story and characters are grounded in deeply human themes about why we love what we love and what makes our souls and our hearts beat.
In turning the camera on himself and his own life, Spielberg has recontextualized his relationship to filmmaking and what it means to possess the talent that has made him the most successful, prolific, and celebrated director alive today. His analog, Sammy Fabelman (newcomer Gabriel LaBelle), goes from a young boy terrified of what he sees on the big screen to a young man unable to process his life without observing it through the eye of the camera lens. Throughout the course of this film, Sammy is mostly an observer of his own life, and not as much of a participant. This is crystalized in a brief moment of virtuosic brilliance in the back half of the film as the emotional climax is unfolding. Sammy imagines himself filming the scene that we are sitting there watching.
With The Fabelmans (and last year’s West Side Story), Steven Spielberg has revealed a stunning new gear that I don’t think many people believed he had anymore. This is a tender and sentimental movie with so many ideas about growing up, parenting, and how we choose what’s important in our lives. My only complaint is it feels like it may have too many ideas. Even at two and a half hours, there doesn’t seem to be enough time devoted to the broad selection of supporting characters, including Sammy’s sisters. As happy as I am to have seen this in the cinema, I can’t help but wonder what the 6-hour limited series version of this story might be. It doesn’t just settle for being about one thing. It’s not just a coming-of-age story. It’s not just a vanity project about Spielberg’s childhood. It’s not just about the power of movies. This is a story that is able to fold in so much and give us plenty to think about and consider well after we are done watching. It’s a warm (and surprisingly funny) movie.
It’s also deeply sad at times. Those who know about Spielberg’s life know that he is a child of divorce. This film tells the story of how his family fell apart, and it does so in some of the most creative and unique ways I have seen. His parents, played by Michelle Williams and Pual Dano, are two sides to the coin that would birth one of the greatest filmmaking talents of all time. The father is a scientist and engineer, and the mother is an artist and a musician. As much as they love each other, there is an unfortunate fate to their marriage, and the way the story chooses to reveal itself is fascinating and captivating. Dano is quiet and reserved, the perfect counter to Williams’ big and expressive performance. Spielberg has managed to turn his parents into movie stars, up on the big screen for the world to see. They are both larger than life and vulnerably exposed to their human imperfections.
The joy of seeing a young Sammy discover a talent for making movies is balanced beautifully with the melancholy of his parents’ imminent divorce. Some of my favorite sequences are the ones where we see him making his first movies, each time escalating his ingenuity and problem-solving. Even the moments of watching an audience watch his work carry an emotional weight. There are as many laugh-out-loud comedic scenes as there are pensive build-ups of sadness. The tone management is exemplary. A stand-out scene is one featuring Judd Hirsh as Uncle Boris, who hijacks the movie for a brief run and distills the core theme of Sammy wanting to connect more to filmmaking than to his own family. It is a roaring performance that shook me in the best possible way, vocalizing the idea of true talent being this curse that you cannot escape.
In Sammy Fabelman, Steven Spielberg is not just showing us his origin. He wants us to try to understand him as a person, the same way he is trying to understand his mother and father as people. He was a boy who turned his fear into a superpower in an attempt to understand the world around him and win over his peers, even as they descended upon him with hatred and antisemitism. The camera becomes as much a shield from things he could not control and a tool to gain acceptance and companionship.
The Fabelmans is a deep and emotional document that informs us about the life and mind of one of the greats. It is also a special film that examines the choices we make and how we hope to feel happiness from them. “Movies are dreams you can never forget,” says Sammy’s mother in the opening scene. This movie is a dream I’ll be sure to return to again and again for years to come.
4.5 broken train sets out of 5
The Fabelmans is now playing in theaters