In some manner, every film offers a glimpse into the mind and soul of its director. Steven Spielberg’s movies have never shied away from this, but The Fabelmans is by far his most revealing, for both obvious and less obvious reasons.
The Fabelmans is multifaceted. It is a (mostly) autobiographical coming-of-age story that mirrors the author’s own suburban Jewish upbringing. It is a confessional about his difficulty relating to family members other than his (would-be) concert pianist mother, the only person who encouraged or even understood his artistic inclinations and aspirations. The Fabelmans is primarily Spielberg waxing nostalgic about why he loves movies.
Sammy Fabelman (Gabriel LaBelle) is not very good at flirting with women. He is incapable of playing sports. He primarily has disagreements with his father and three younger sisters. The only aspect of life that makes sense to him is cinema. And not just by observing them, although he is captivated from the moment he enters a theater. Sammy obsesses over storyboarding, cinematography, and editing. It’s as if he’s discovered a missing part of himself. He makes movies because it is the only thing he knows how to do and the only thing he can do, especially as his life begins to spiral out of control.
Spielberg has utilized his films for decades to convey his life experiences. It is impossible not to interpret Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade as metaphors for his own relationship with his father. He has elaborated on how an attempt to write a story about his parents’ divorce gave birth to E.T. The Fabelmans goes several steps further (with the assistance of writer Tony Kushner) by incorporating subtext into the text. Granted, not every element is a direct lift from his own life, but the broad strokes are there with his aforementioned mother and a brilliant electrical engineer father who frequently relocates the family as he pursues work at the forefront of computer technology.
Sammy’s only constant in life is movies. The projector’s gentle flicker is comforting. The only things he can control are the stories he creates. But more than anything else, he gradually realizes the impact his stories have on those he shares them with. Sammy doesn’t realize that his hobby is more than just a pastime until he meets his Uncle Boris (Judd Hirsch) and learns from him that it can be more than just entertainment. But once he reaches this realization, he realizes he is incapable of doing anything else.
All of this is intertwined with the ups and downs of being a Jewish child, often the only one around (save for his siblings). Simply because of his family’s religion, he is cruelly mocked and even beaten. Nevertheless, it is a film that helps him overcome it.
Thankfully, none of this comes across as navel-gazing or self-promotion; rather, it is a love letter to everything that brought Spielberg to his current position. He is not shy about pointing out Sammy’s aloofness. Spielberg portrays Burt (Paul Dano) as a highly affectionate, if awkward, family man who simply wants to do what’s best for his family, despite the fact that he was clearly frustrated with his father. It may very well be my favorite performance by Dano.
As Sammy’s bombastic uncle, Judd Hirsch delivers a bone-rattling performance. Only Alec Baldwin’s brief appearance in Glengarry Glen Ross is comparable to this type of work. You never see him again, but his words continue to reverberate and set the tone for everything that follows. If not for Ke Huy Quan’s phenomenal performance in Everything Everywhere All At Once, I wouldn’t want anyone else to win the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor at next year’s ceremony.
Michelle Williams, however, delivers the outstanding performance, striking the ideal balance between happiness, elation, love, frailty, sadness, and fallibility. It is a nuanced, frequently heart-wrenching display of acting that is in some ways the story’s soul.
We never get a complete picture of the entire Fabelman family, despite the film’s title being The Fabelmans. Sammy’s three sisters are grossly underdeveloped as characters, with only a single significant exchange between him and one of them (good though it is). Granted, this is intended to be Sammy’s story, and it’s entirely possible that Spielberg’s own relationship with them was similarly strained, but it still stands out.
The Fabelmans is as emotionally engaging as anything Spielberg has ever made or is likely to make. This film wears its heart on its sleeve with great pride, joy, and affection. In a popular culture that often likes biting sarcasm and postmodern deconstruction, The Fabelmans’ open affection and sentimentality toward its audience almost feels a little bit daring. I would not expect anything less from the film’s director. I’m just happy that he continues doing what obviously means the world to him.