The Fabelmans review: A dazzling and bittersweet movie memoir
The new film from Steven Spielberg is by far the most personal of his career.
Steven Spielberg has always been telling his life story, but never quite like this. From the families in Close Encounters of the Third Kind to E.T. the Extra Terrestrial, AI Artificial Intelligence and many more, it’s clear the director’s upbringing has heavily informed his work. However, his 33rd film is by far his most personal, and casts new light on the 76-year-old’s catalogue while also adding to it.
Although the title may make it sound so, The Fabelmans is neither a sitcom nor fable — and in fact, it’s barely even fiction. Together with Munich, Lincoln and West Side Story writer Tony Kushner, Spielberg finds subject matter in himself, as the titular family is very much based on his own.
In a plot spanning 20 years, the central character is the young Sammy Fabelman (Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord in childhood and newcomer Gabriel LaBelle in adolescence), who falls in love with film-making when he is taken to see The Greatest Show on Earth by his parents, portrayed by Michelle Williams and Paul Dano. His mother Mitzi is a keen pianist and his father Burt a computer engineer, so Sammy finds himself closer to his artist mum than his scientist dad. Yet as he makes lo-fi student films that show a star on the rise, the nuclear family begins to fall apart.
Aided by a bittersweet script, Dano and Williams both excel — with the former a mix of stoic and sensitive and the latter free-spirited but brittle. Their characters’ marriage provides much of the dramatic momentum and the pair carry such responsibility capably, while the wide-eyed LaBelle adds charm as Sammy — and Seth Rogen proves to be a surprisingly sharp bit of casting as his dad’s best friend, Bennie.
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As the movie memoir progresses, cinephiles are spoilt by neat nods to Spielberg’s oeuvre and the experiences that shaped it, but The Fabelmans is not solely for film buffs. Like the best of Spielberg’s sentimental blockbusters, this story is told with irresistible brio and next to frequent cinematographer Janusz Kamiński, the director dazzles by making what could be mundane wondrous. Never before have film strips being cut together on an editing machine, or a model train set being crashed in a garage, been so thrilling and cinematic.
Likewise, there is a lack of ego in what is essentially a self-made biopic. Spielberg does not shy away from showing both the profits and perils of seeing life through a camera lens, as alongside self-effacing humour — which continues until the final frame — the film has a thorniness and melancholy that hides barely beneath the cheerful surface.
The cost of this complexity is a meaty 151-minute runtime, but those daunted by that — or put off by the idea of yet another film serving as a “love letter to cinema” — will be pleased that The Fabelmans is dynamic as it covers ground. As much as the narrative echoes Cinema Paradiso in extolling the virtues of movies, a late section surprises by endearingly evoking high-school drama American Graffiti, directed by Spielberg’s contemporary and friend George Lucas.
Similarly, there are cameos to savour: from Judd Hirsch showing up as Sammy’s eccentric and former lion-taming granduncle, to famed film-maker David Lynch arriving late to play a revered Hollywood director and Spielberg hero.
The latter scene relates to how even in his 70s, Spielberg remains full of wonder. It may seem we’ve been waiting decades for The Fabelmans, but the master director makes it clear that this unique, late-career confessional was not a film he always wanted to make, but rather one he had to build towards.