Pauline Kael in her legendary review for Steven Spielberg’s pre-Jaws (1975) breakout feature The Sugarland Express (1974), a film she called “one of the most phenomenal debut films in the history of movies”, that Spielberg “isn’t saying anything special in The Sugarland Express, but he has a knack for bringing out young actors and a sense of composition and movement that almost any director might envy.” This note encapsulates the pantheon filmmaker’s now long-serving skill set and potential flaws as an empty escapist entertainer (a critique Spielberg agreed with as something he had to grow into).
This should be kept in mind while watching his most personal film yet, The Fabelmans (2022), both in following our budding protagonist’s journey as a filmmaker, but also in Spielberg’s own journey behind the camera to arrive at a place where he felt daring enough to put his life on screen in this openly vulnerable way.
The film follows Sammy (Mateo Zoryan as young Sammy, Gabriel LaBelle as teenage Sammy) and the family Fabelman from a child to 18, tracing the journey from New Jersey, to Phoenix, and finally to California as he discovers his love for film. This love, however, begins to complicate as Sammy grows more invested in cinema, an investment that intertwines and impacts his love, both internally and externally, for his family.
The opening scene is a microcosm of the film, with Sammy and his parents Mitzi (Michelle Williams) and Burt (Paul Dano), going to a showing of Cecil B. Demille’s The Greatest Show on Earth (1952), his first film experience. Sammy is scared to go in, with Spielberg opening the frame from his perspective, with his parents’ legs looming over the screen like Charlie Brown adults, so the pair do their best to reassure their child in their own ways. Burt believes this can be achieved by explaining to Sammy how the projector operates on a mechanical level, while Mitzi rebuts by expressing to him that “movies are a dream”. This duality plays throughout the film, with Spielberg with Sammy as his stand-in, as a budding craftsman that has the soul of a big-dreaming artist.
On its surface, The Fablemans has the appearance of the ultimate final Spielberg film. In a half-century-long career, the legendary filmmaker is looking back at his upbringing, mining the depths of his childhood to create a truly individual coming-of-age story that he has more than deserved to make. Whether intentional or not, Spielberg has created an aura around The Fabelmans as the film he has wanted to make his whole life and feels may not get another chance besides now. There is an urgency to the storytelling that creates propulsion from scene to scene. Spielberg is the ultimate sentimentalist filmmaker, but this may be his most naked and open-hearted. Surprisingly though, the film is a more biting reflection on one’s upbringing as a young artist than it is perceived and is a truly unique film experience by modern Hollywood’s most important filmmaker.
The film has a truly fascinating origin and is worth adding an extra chapter to the documentary Spielberg (2017), with the filmmaker shifting his focus during Covid, which forced West Side Story (2021) to delay a year, and for his children to be at home with him in lockdown. He also began working on this film shortly after his parents passed away (his father living to 103!) which should be noted in the context of the film. The pandemic is a large reason for this glut of memoiristic films by seasoned veteran filmmakers, with Spielberg being no exception. And, to no surprise, the master filmmaker has made the best film of the class.
Divorce is a defining aspect of Spielberg’s career so depicting the ur-separation that defines him is deeply compelling. Family units being separated can be seen throughout Spielberg’s filmography, from E.T. (1982), Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989), Catch Me if You Can (2002), A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001), and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), all mining from similar experiences and placing them inside of other stories. In the Fabelmans, his relationship with his family changes and shifts in interesting and messy ways, especially in relation to his obsession with the camera and the power he wields in it. Seeing Sammy be oblivious to the power and destruction that his filmmaking obsession has on his family, with the emotional journey we see him go through, eventually unravels to him by the end of The Fabelmans that with great power comes great responsibility.
Frequent writing partner Tony Kushner has discussed how he believes Steven needed someone outside of the family to help work on the script. Anne Spielberg (Steven’s sister portrayed by Julia Butters in the film) wrote a script I’ll Be Home in 1999 about their childhood that they considered making into a film but never did. Their relationship is so connected at this stage, Kushner is able to balance the necessary mix of therapeutic memoir ghostwriter, and close filmmaking partner to create a truly special film. Using Kushner’s masterful skills in humanising and empathising with each character, Spielberg is able to create an honest love letter to his parents and those that made him who he is.
The power of Spielberg’s clear-eyed and impassioned filmmaking, mixed with Kushner’s deft hand at profound characterisation, allows the audience to see themselves in every character. This is as much a film about Mitzi and Burt as it is about Sammy, with Kushner able to establish an extraordinary amount of emotional depth out of these personal stories for Spielberg whilst never feeling overly soft or cruel to their lives.
The film mines aspects of Spielberg’s childhood that were not known, as he was clearly not ready to discuss in interviews or in the 2017 documentary, opting instead to express it the only way he knows how: by putting it on celluloid. The revelations made in The Fabelmans are clearly so personal to him that it is so heartwarming and heart-wrenching to see them rendered on screen for the world to see in some of the best scenes of the year.
A personal favourite scene of the film and perhaps of the year, is the pivotal scene of Sammy deciding to show Mitzi the camping trip edit that has been eating him up and could rupture his family. Every moment of this scene is emotionally charged and perfect, leading to perhaps the most important use of Spielberg Face in his career. Beginning with a collection of insert shots, delicately showing the tactile and personal process of setting up his projector, adding to the weight of Sammy’s decision. Nothing illustrates his character more than choosing to show this film to his mother as his voice in an argument, both in his fear and his unknowing power his camera has. This moment also illustrates the evolution Mitzi and Sammy’s relationship has with these films in the closet, from humble childhood beginnings to emotionally shattering ends.
What allows The Fabelmans to expand past an individual coming-of-age story is the connection Kushner and Spielberg give to supporting characters in Sammy’s life. Woven delicately underneath the film is Reggie, (played wonderfully by Once Upon a Time in Hollywood 2019 breakout Julia Butters) and her emotional connection with her mother Mitzi. In the mother’s dress rehearsal for her piano performance, on the camping trip as the men are enraptured by Mitzi’s dance, and after the parents announce their divorce, Reggie is defending her mother, someone she is clearly emotionally in tune with while others are merely drawn to it. The Fabelmans is more than just Sammy’s story, through these other characters the film has shown a wider lens at this family as it emerges through crisis and change in an emerging America.
Biopics often fall into a trap of whipping through the subject’s life at a rapid pace, never allowing the film to ground itself in a place for long stretches, with important figures whipping through their life scene to scene. The Fabelmans has several scenes that play out that way, like the abrupt entrance of Uncle Boris (with an awards-worthy performance by Judd Hirsch), as well as a chance meeting with John Ford (I won’t spoil who he is played by) that closes the film. But there is never an air of dishonesty or hokiness to these moments, especially the Uncle Boris scene which really illuminates to Sammy his connection to his mother and their familial bond to art which is sure to lead to heartbreak.
Spielberg’s whole heart is on the screen, warts and all. What makes The Fabelmans succeed is its lack of pure saccharine while still maintaining his signature warmth. It is a crucial scene that can be put up against any of his totemic scenes, showing Mitzi and Burt sitting down with their children to tell them about the divorce, which devolves into a shouting match. While frozen by what’s happening, Sammy isolates himself on the staircase while his family sits around the couch, he sees himself in the mirror, holding a camera up to this distressing confrontation. With an audible groan coursing through the audience, this is perhaps the most critical Spielberg has ever been about himself and how he uses filmmaking as a way to both reveal and hide behind his personal life.
Pair that with the pivotal scene of the antisemitic bully Logan (Sam Rechner in a quietly brilliant performance) confronting Sammy after the burgeoning filmmaker decided to capture him as the golden child of the school, and we have a truly unique experience of watching a masterful artist trying to come to terms with his camera-wielding compulsions.
The Fabelmans is in select theatres from January 5th.