Michelle Williams, Paul Dano and Seth Rogen star in a coming-of-age story, directed by Steven Spielberg.
After directing dozens of films, Steven Spielberg goes home to tell his own story.
In its very first scene, The Fabelmans throws down the gauntlet between art and science in cinema. Trying to convince the reluctant young Sammy that he will enjoy the experience of watching his very first movie, Cecil B. DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth (1952), in a New Jersey theater as they wait for the doors to open, his mother Mitzi (Michelle Williams), herself an artistic type who gave up any career hopes in favor of raising a family, argues in behalf of of the film’s artistic merits and how it will make Sammy feel. Simultaneously, his father Burt (Paul Dano), a scientist, explains how movies are exhibited 24 frames per second, and so forth.
Once they start watching the movie, young Sammy is caught up completely in the experience. Realizing at once his purpose in life, he knows he must somehow make his own movie. From there, of course, a star (filmmaker) is born.
Even before I knew his name or understood (faintly) what he did as a director, Steven Spielberg captured my attention, first with the television shows he helmed (Colombo, Name of the Game, Night Gallery) and then with the films he made. Starting with his second feature, Jaws (1975), I have endeavored to see everything he has directed on a big screen, if possible, and if circumstances did not permit, then certainly on television.
I believe The Fabelmans is his 33rd feature film, so far, and certainly ranks in his upper percentile. With the passage of time, he is able to look back upon his own youth, fictionalizing it for dramatic purposes — he receives his first writing credit since A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001), collaborating with writer Tony Kushner (Munich, 2005; Lincoln, 2012; West Side Story, 2021) — and softening the edges, without eliminating entirely the painful stabs of memory that are inherent in recalling any great love. We can learn from the past, but only if we are honest with ourselves.
In Spielberg’s telling, he enjoys a happy family life with his parents and sisters, along with their “Uncle” Bernie (Seth Rogen), Burt’s gregarious best friend and fellow worker, who is also a special friend of Mitzi. When Burt gets a new job with greater responsibilities in Arizona, they all move cross-country together.
It’s in Arizona that Sammy (now played by Gabriel LaBelle) becomes more ambitious as a filmmaker, gathering like-minded friends to help him realize his dreams on film, and gaining recognition among his peers. From there, however, a fateful camping trip and another big move awaits to deepen the story and raise the stakes for everyone.
Spielberg’s films are always a pleasure to watch, and this one flew by, belying its extended running time, without aliens or spaceships or the horrors of (genuine) war. Instead, the battles are interpersonal, as Sammy wrestles with what is happening to his parents as they slowly drift apart and the children are left hanging.
Michelle Williams gives a remarkable performance as Mitzi, much of it with subtle graduations of her facial expressions and body language, as she captures the highs and lows of an artistic woman at a time when women were expected to conform to stilted cultural preconceptions as to their behavior. She doesn’t always need to say anything; sometimes, it’s the way she cuts off her own desire to say something that speaks volumes.
Playing the more contained, conservative parent, Paul Dano is no less effective as Burt. In his own modest, scientific manner that favors analysis over emotion, his face ripples with love and pain, adoration and suffering, as he records everything and files it away for later absorption.
Entirely absorbing and eminently entertaining, The Fabelmans is a true marvel to behold, a jewel that will last a lifetime. Or more.
The film opens in Dallas, Fort Worth and surrounding cities Wednesday, November 23, 2022. For more information about the film, visit the official site.