Steven Spielberg‘s semi-autobiographical coming-of-age drama The Fabelmans is the work of a master and the director’s best film since Munich, even if it’s not quite a home run.
It’s true that this story wouldn’t be nearly as interesting as it is if it weren’t “about” Steven Spielberg, embodied here by rising star Gabriel LaBelle as young Spielberg stand-in Sammy Fabelman. But the truth is that while Sammy is indisputably the protagonist, the film is called The Fabelmans, plural, so it’s not, in fact, Steven Spielberg’s autobiography. I should’ve known that Spielberg would never do that—he’d never make a movie that was about himself. No, this movie is clearly about his mother, Leah Adler, who died in February 2017, three-and-a-half years before Spielberg’s father, Arnold.
Michelle Williams is excellent as Sammy’s mother and Leah’s alter ego, Mitzi, who is something of a character, prone to both fits and flights of fancy, though she never loses sight of being a good mother. And though she tries to be a dutiful wife to her husband, Burt, (Paul Dano), the spark between them has faded, which may explain why she’s so close to Burt’s best friend, Bennie (Seth Rogen)—a fact that does not go unnoticed by the observant Sammy and his own best friend, his trusty Super 8 camera.
Much has been made of the fact that Williams will be campaigning for a Best Actress nomination this year rather than positioning herself as the frontrunner in the Best Supporting Actress category, but the reason that she chose to run in a more competitive category is that Mitzi truly is one of the two lead characters in The Fabelmans, which Spielberg clearly made in response to his mother’s death.
In fact, I don’t think he would’ve dared to make this movie while she was alive. He would’ve been far too embarrassed, as I suspect that wouldn’t have wanted to show his mother, in full, how her behavior affected him as a young man, and how he truly saw her— not as a parent, but as a person. After all, there’s a moment in The Fabelmans where Sammy realizes the power that his art can have on people, and how it can even affect how people see themselves.
That’s a unique power, and Spielberg recognizes that the responsibility that comes with it. He’s dealing with some dark (but surely human) stuff here that I suspect he knows his mother wouldn’t have wanted to see on the big screen while she was still alive but would’ve wholeheartedly endorsed after her passing.
For example, there’s a scene in the film in which Mitzi buys a pet monkey, and though the film’s trailer treats it as some kind of kiddie flick gag out of Doctor Dolittle, the sentiment that Mitzi bought a monkey “’cause I needed a laugh” is a rather devastating line within the context of the film. It speaks to her loneliness and depression, which stems from the newfound distance between her and one of the great loves of her life.
Some critics have unfairly criticized Williams’ “big” performance here, as if Spielberg let her process get away from his, but I suspect that most critics simply don’t recognize this kind of larger-than-life Jewish mother, as my own mother was. She never brought home any monkeys—my two brothers and I were the monkeys, for the most part—but she was a character, no doubt, and I certainly recognized her in Mitzi, though Mitzi is also burdened by a sadness that neither she nor her family can escape. What I mean by that is, when she’s down, everyone is down, as the family takes its emotional cues from her ever-changing mood. Of course, Mitzi loves her family, but still yearns for a larger life, something more… something that Burt can’t give her, no matter how high he climbs the ladder at RCA.
Of course, The Fabelmans isn’t a movie entirely about Mitzi, but to dismiss her storyline as the B-story to Sammy’s coming-of-age and development as a filmmaker isn’t quite fair either, as the two go hand-in-hand. This isn’t a movie about the power of movies so much as it is a powerful mother-son story about a boy who turned to filmmaking to deal with his own grief.
Performance-wise, LaBelle is a terrific find, and though Sammy is fairly passive in the first two-thirds of the film, he really comes into his own in the final act, and the way he internalizes his mother’s secret is rather heartbreaking. He turns “young Spielberg” into a relatable protagonist and, by the end of the film, you’re not only rooting for him, but you really care about him and his future, and it has nothing to do with his real-life alter ego.
I’ve already mentioned Williams’ turn as Mitzi, but as great as she is, Dano may very well have the trickiest role in the film as her endlessly supportive husband. He delivers an understated performance here that may feel small, but it goes a long way. I also loved Rogen’s supporting turn as Dano’s best friend and Sammy’s surrogate uncle, which is reminiscent of his work in Take This Waltz. It’s genius casting on Spielberg’s part, as it’s hard not to like Rogen even though his Uncle Bennie is contributing to the fracturing of this family, whom he dearly loves, mind you.
Meanwhile, Judd Hirsch will likely earn an Oscar nomination for his all-too-brief role as Sammy’s great-uncle, but while he’s certainly quite authentic and delivers a moving scene in Sammy’s bedroom, he doesn’t really get enough screen time to leave a lasting impression. What does, however, is a buzzy cameo appearance from David Lynch as director John Ford, who gave Spielberg some early career advice. The scene ends the film and serves as a cute button that will send people out of the theater with a smile, but the truth is that The Fabelmans likely should’ve ended about 10 minutes earlier, maybe even 20, and the Ford scene is rather unnecessary, even though I enjoyed it—especially the very last shot.
The trailer for The Fabelmans is one of the single best trailers I’ve ever seen, with a stunning tagline—”Capture Every Moment”—that speaks to each and every Academy voter, all of whom devote their lives to capturing those special moments for the entertainment of strangers. This feels like Spielberg’s moment, as The Fabelmans sees him return to the basics of storytelling, and in his own voice, seeing as how Ready Player One was very much from the mind of Ernie Cline, and his West Side Story remake was very much from the mind of Jerome Robbins. Even The Post felt rather rote and anonymous. And the less said about his adaptation of Roald Dahl‘s The BFG, the better.
Lincoln and Bridge of Spies both rank in the top half of Spielberg’s 21st-century films, but they’re literally driven by Oscar-winning performances from Daniel Day-Lewis and Mark Rylance, and neither one offers much rewatch value, as both are rather cold. The Fabelmans, however, is the opposite—it’s full of life, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that it’s the first film Spielberg has taken a writing credit on in more than 20 years (since 2001’s A.I.). With the help of co-writer Tony Kushner, Spielberg has delved deep into his own heart and delivered his most personal movie yet.
Some may find it a bit too schmaltzy or saccharine, but I can’t wait to rewatch The Fabelmans with my own family, and if this film isn’t the one to beat for Best Picture this year, I don’t know what is…