Revisiting the coming of age genre for the first time since ‘Catch Me If You Can’ Spielberg crafts his most satisfying film since.
Director: Steven Spielberg (West Side Story, Ready Player One, The Post)
Writer: Steven Spielberg (A.I. Artificial Intelligence, Poltergeist, Close Encounters of the Third Kind) Tony Kushner (West Side Story, Lincoln, Munich)
Producer Kristie Macosko Krieger (The Trial of the Chicago 7, The BFG, Bridge of Spies) Tony Kushner (Fences)
Music By: John Williams | Cinematography: Janusz Kaminski | Film Editing: Sarah Broshar, Michael Kahn
Casting By: Cindy Tolan | Production Design Rick Carter| Costume Design Mark Bridges
Starring: Gabriel LaBelle, Michelle Williams, Paul Dano, Seth Rogen, and Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord
Plot: A semi-autobiographical fable based on the childhood experiences of young Steven Spielberg. Growing up in post-World War II era Arizona, Sammy Fabelman a budding young filmmaker explores how the power of films can help him see the truth and in the process discovers a shattering family secret.
Review: I remember my first childhood experience in the cinema with my brother Sam going to see X-MEN. Coincidentally filming of that movie took place at Roy Thompson Hall where the screening of this movie was held. Here Spielberg was on hand to introduce The Fabelmans himself, and it was really electric, but it’s within the film that the magic happens. Sammy Fabelman, the name of Spielberg’s onscreen proxy, witnesses The Greatest Show on Earth. His first childhood cinematic experience. Inspiring him to eventually make films for a living. The Fablemans does not match the experience of seeing X-MEN or The Greatest Show on Earth in theatres for the first time, but its recreation of childhood may be enough to inspire others to go out and make their own movies.
The sound and presentation for The Fabelmans were perfect as usual during Toronto International Film Festival. The only tiring thing in the film was the overt stomping down the hallway by angry teenage Spielberg which happens too many times. Still, after the credits rolled it was my favourite film of 2022.
Spielberg and co-writer Tony Kushner take smart creative liberties in the service of storytelling. For example, Spielberg didn’t actually see The Greatest Show on Earth until he was 12. Here he is half that age. Spielberg worked hard to ensure his childhood recreations of backyard movies were better than the originals, so when you see the wunderkind onscreen you share his parents’ amazement because it’s a 75-year-old master recreating his childhood films better than they ever were. This is a director who has made 33 films over 4 decades and his talent shows.
It’s also fun to spot the references to Spielberg’s other work during the film; the cyclone from War of the Worlds, the bikes from E.T., and the wartime conversations from Saving Private Ryan. All his 60’s and 70s period pieces also bear resemblance to what we see here. If you ever wish you could go back to when you were younger with all the knowledge you know now, Spielberg has the solution: make a movie.
Michelle Williams plays the mother Mitzi. Reaching for the emotional highs of her previous characters in Manchester by the Sea and Blue Valentine, Williams dials it up. However, the screenplay doesn’t lend the necessary depth to support her character. So in her occasional overacting, it feels like she might have stepped off the set of Venom: Let There Be Carnage. Her best moment comes when she brings her children out of the house towards a literal tornado, it is reminiscent of Tom Cruise and Dakota Fanning in War of the Worlds. “Is it safe?” One of the daughters asks. “Of course it’s safe, I’m your mother!” It’s a resonant moment that succeeds at making Mitzi interesting. But the film doesn’t counterbalance her zaniness, rendering her cartoonish.
I wanted more of Sammy’s complicated relationship with his father Burt. The father-son dynamics of Spielberg’s films are often a highlight. It’s clear the director wanted to focus on the nourishing creativity Mitzi provided, but greater closure for the father character was needed. The rest of the family is supportive, so the father is the main opponent. However, thanks to the film’s focus on Sammy’s internal journey, the external relationships matter less.
Spielberg exploits Mitzi by comparison. She gets many scenes that go on too long, Although they flesh out her relationship with Sammy. It is unclear what the rest of the family dynamic is. A Best Actress Oscar campaign is underway to promote Williams. She isn’t a Lead, but it looks like Spielberg is trying to perfect his record. In the last decade, his films have collected Oscars in all other acting categories.
The Fabelmans is able to make up for its shallowness in two ways; direction and acting. Because his parents are so distinct, Sammy’s conflicts remain clear. Gabriel LaBelle is perfect as Sammy. He’s given heavy material but doesn’t overdo it, landing several emotional beats with the right touch. A scene with a school bully nails Spielberg’s quiet and not-so-quiet confidence. The ensemble of sisters, aunts, and uncles gives the movie its heart. Particularly Seth Rogen in his final scene. It’s far from Rogen’s best work in Steve Jobs, but the audience did get a kick out of hearing his iconic laugh in a 1960’s Spielberg setting. Such touches help remind you there’s real life put into these roles. It all adds up to Spielberg’s biggest emotional punch in decades.
Despite the heavy subject matter, there is a lightness to it, it is literally Spielberg. The brilliance is knowing he’ll land on his feet. Perfect for a coming-of-age film. Whenever Sammy contemplates quitting there’s fun in waiting to see what inspiration strikes for him to pick up the camera again. The movie doesn’t kid itself. The setbacks Sammy faces are temporary. As bad as things get, and they can get pretty bad during high school, there is still light at the end of the tunnel.
For my first Spielberg review, review my review of Spielberg’s first film when I was his age: The Sugarland Express.
Tidbit: It’s funny the idea of a director being successful enough to direct their own Biopic. I remember when this film was announced on DEADLINE the top comment was “Ego stroke, what is this guy hurting for work?” Yet after Alfonso Cuaron’s ROMA won 3 Oscars, and Kenneth Branagh finally won his Oscar for Belfast (after 8 career nominations) it’d be foolish not to try and trade childhood memories for gold statues. [Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu is up next later this year with Bardo.]
*My Mom encourages my artistic endeavors as well. May all Moms do the same.