Steven Spielberg has released his most personal film to date in The Fabelmans, an irresistible and utterly captivating depiction of the director’s youth and journey behind the camera. This instant-classic combines Cinema Paradiso’s love of the cinema with 8½’s depiction of a tortured filmmaker, and rates among the director’s finest achievements.
Despite being promoted as “loosely” inspired by the Spielberg’s own life (the director has a rare writing credit here, alongside longtime collaborator Tony Kushner), many scenes in The Fabelmans will be instantly recognizable to those familiar with stories of the director’s youth from documentaries and behind-the-scenes features.
One of those is a note-perfect opening sequence in which Burt (Paul Dano) and Mitzi Fabelman (Michelle Williams) take their young Sam (Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord) to a showing of his first-ever movie at the cinema: The Greatest Show on Earth.
Five-year-old Sam is nearly traumatized by a scene in which a train violently crashes on screen, and he relives the memory by crashing his own train set at home. Mom helps him preserve the memory by recording it with his father’s camera, and as Sam stages, films, and edits the footage together to confront his inner trauma, a filmmaker is born.
In a difficult role that is simultaneously sympathetic and self-centered, Williams shines as the mother who encourages Sam to follow his dreams while creating a tornado of family drama around him. Dano, as Sam’s stoic father and a brilliant computer scientist who is unable to rein in the artistic ambitions of his wife or son, brings warmth and nuance to a more understated role.
But The Fabelmans belongs to Gabriel LaBelle, who plays Sam Fabelman through his formative teenage years. A dead-ringer for a young Spielberg, LaBelle is utterly compelling as the unusually self-assured teen in love with films and filmmaking, who comes to doubt his calling in the midst of family turmoil.
In a movie-stealing five-minute cameo, Judd Hirsch plays Mitzi’s uncle Boris, who briefly visits the family after the death of her mother. Boris, who left his sister to join the circus, lives with the same artistic passion as both Sam and his mother; in The Fabelman’s centerpiece scene, he reminds Sam to never forget the pain that comes with it.
Seth Rogen, in an unusually mannered performance, stars as “uncle” Bennie, a colleague of Burt and friend of the family. Jeannie Berlin leaves a memorable impression despite limited screentime as the Fabelman matriarch, who subtly butts heads with Mitzi in the film’s early scenes.
The Fabelmans tells its true-to-life story without regard for formulaic consistency; late sequences bring jarring shifts in setting as Sam moves to Northern California for his senior year in high school and then to Los Angeles for college… and a shot in the movie industry.
Another film may have attempted to keep the supporting characters and locations together for the sake of the story, but The Fabelmans isn’t afraid to take chances with its narrative: the shifts for the audience effectively mimic what Sam would have been going through. In northern California, Sam comes into contact with antisemitic bullies – and the enigmatic love interest Monica (Chloe East), who is reconciling a Christian upbringing with burgeoning sexuality.
A pitch-perfect final sequence serves as a beautiful bookend to The Fabelmans, and brings a piece of Hollywood lore to the screen as Sam comes face-to-face with one of his idols (enthusiastically played by David Lynch).
The Fabelmans represents one of the best films from one of Hollywood’s finest filmmakers; it’s a clear favorite to take home the next Best Picture Oscar. Not all audiences may respond to Spielberg’s brand of moviemaking nostalgia with the same rose-colored glasses, but for those that do, The Fabelmans is an absolute treasure.