The great director draws upon his life, and the lives of his late parents in a masterfully crafted and performed dramedy whose affection for its subjects is as clear-eyed as deep.
A little over 24 hours after seeing it, there are two sequences in Steven Spielberg‘s The Fabelmans that I’ve run on repeat back and forth. One dramatic, the other comedic—both illustrate the strengths of Spielberg’s semi-autobiography.
In the first, teenage filmmaker Sam Fabelman (Gabriel LaBelle, American Gigolo 2022) sits at a home editing machine, crafting a movie for his mother, Mitzi (Michelle Williams). She’s fallen into an extended depression in the wake of her mother’s death—so Sam’s father, Burt (Paul Dano), has asked him to put together a film from the footage he shot on a beloved camping trip the Fabelmans took with their Uncle-by-best-friendship-with-Burt Bennie Lowey (Seth Rogen). Sam loves moviemaking—he has since he was little. And he loves his parents dearly. So with some cajoling, he’s gotten to work.
And as Sam edits, he has a paradigm-shifting revelation: his mother and Bennie are in love. No one else knows—even Mitzi and Bennie may not realize their relationship’s full extent. But the camera saw, and through his editing, Sam has seen too—caught in a way that makes unseeing impossible. It changes his life irreversibly.
In telling a version of his family’s story—including his own—Spielberg is empathetic, sympathetic, and acutely aware of the (sorry) big picture.
In the second, Sam’s been invited over by his very cute and VERY Christian classmate Monica (Chloe East). They’re attracted to each other, and they’re alone. In Monica’s bedroom. They’re excited. It’s a big moment—one that takes a turn for the bizarre when Monica tries to teach Sam how to pray Christian-style before they commence making out. For all the fumbling and religious misunderstanding, they figure out how to neck. Briefly. And all the while, the giant sculpture of Jesus on the cross hanging above Monica’s bed looks on.
These two scenes sum up everything in The Fabelmans that excels. In telling a version of his family’s story—including his own—Spielberg and co-writer Tony Kushner are empathetic, sympathetic, and acutely aware of the (sorry) big picture. Mitzi and Burt love their kids dearly and love each other. Their marriage is irrecoverably failing and may have been so for years. Mitzi is a tremendous pianist and thrives on the arts—and married life and parenthood have required her to set a massive part of herself aside for years. Burt’s work is his passion (he’s a key architect of what will become modern computing), and he struggles to understand that more artistic passions (i.e., Mitzi and Sam’s) can be just as fulfilling and require just as much work as his engineering.
Both Fabelman parents try their best to do right by Sam and his sisters. They do not always succeed—Mitzi has a reckless streak intertwined with her deeply romantic worldview, and Burt can be stifling in his pragmatism. Sam himself is a sweet, creative kid with a bad habit of retreating (behind his camera or into familiarity and otherwise) from the uncomfortable. Williams, Dano, and LaBelle do tremendous work individually and together—all of their performances are genuine and thoughtful. Pay particular attention to the way they (appropriately enough for a movie about moviemaking) look at each other—it’s reliably fantastic work.
Moreover, The Fabelmans‘ command of tone and sensation and their shifting is impeccable. It’s a picture with space for a young man to come face to face with the fact that his parents are human—capable of magnificence and failure and the search for themselves as he himself is. It’s a picture with space for one of the most screamingly funny moments of capital-letters AWKWARD TEEN ROMANCE I’ve seen in a movie in who knows how long. It doesn’t just capture the evolution of Sam’s moviemaking; it captures the feeling bound up in it—the disappointment that the initial version of a Boy Scout-starring western’s big gunfight looks fake, the satisfaction of guiding a high-school actor to successfully performing a soldier traumatized by the deaths of his men, the joy of an escalating beach party gag killing with its crowd.
Above all else, I am taken with just how clear-eyed The Fabelmans is—Spielberg loves his parents dearly, and to honor that love, he insists on the completeness of Mitzi and Burt’s humanity—their best and worst moments, their continuing growth and change. He adores film as a medium and filmmaking as a process and making that love true means acknowledging and understanding the emotional cost that comes with the craft—and the ways it can get away from its maker. It’s as precise as it is sentimental, pointed as it is funny, thoughtful as it is sensational, and magnificent in being so.
This is one of 2022’s best films. See it.
The Fabelmans opens wide today, November 23rd.