The Fabelmans is director Steven Spielberg’s magnum opus. The family found at the heart of this painfully personal and stunningly emotional feature stands in for Spielberg’s own, as the Oscar-winning filmmaker turns his camera back on his adolescence to examine – through his unique, masterful lens – the hardships and triumphs that led to him becoming one of our greatest filmmakers.
The film is an homage to Spielberg’s two religions: Judaism and Film. It clarifies the enormous hold that each one has on the man, as well as the hold he comes to realize that the latter can have on an audience. It’s a story about art and creativity, about hardships and sacrifice – about how messy life can get, but how necessary those messes are if one’s ever going to experience a life worth living. It’s a masterpiece, and the best movie Spielberg has delivered since… well, the masterful West Side Story in 2021. (That’s one of many Spielberg movies you can stream right now.)
The Fabelmans held its world premiere at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival, where it received a standing ovation that lasted so long, festival organizers had to beg the audience to stop so that they could begin a Q-and-A with Spielberg and his cast. If not for that plea, the ovation might still be going as you were reading this.
The Fabelmans is drunk on Spielberg’s passion for film.
A trip to the movie theater to see Cecil B. DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth unlocks a door into imagination for young Sammy Fabelman (Mateo Zoryna Francis-Deford). His parents, Burt (Paul Dano) and Mitzi (Michelle Williams) debate whether the impressionable kid is old enough to take in a picture show. What they don’t anticipate is how the larger-than-life images on that screen are going to set Sammy on a path to a career in the arts that will place a vice grip on the man, to the detriment of almost everything else in his life.
Spielberg is one of the last remaining filmmakers who still shoots on film, and The Fabelmans works well as a case study for the reasons he chooses to do so. According to The Fabelmans, and the character of Sammy in the movie, the emotions that are captured on film are a gift. Film is real. Film is the truth. But as The Fabelmans points out, those truths set to film aren’t always welcome, and aren’t always appreciated. “Family. Art. It will tear you in two,” Judd Hirsch tells Sammy during a short but substantial sequence that could be just long enough (and impactful enough) to earn the veteran actor a Supporting Actor nomination at the Oscars. Spielberg, like Sammy, belongs on the art side of the coin. Science/math/business are found on the opposite side of that equation. And it’s within the conflict between those two that The Fabelmans finds its drama.
Welcome to the Oscars conversation, Michelle Williams.
Those unfamiliar with Spielberg’s own history might want to brush up before heading into The Fabelmans. For while the film’s first trailer doubles down on the director’s appreciation for film, the studio system, and the actual effort of making movies, the Tony Kushner script for The Fabelmans also spends ample amounts of time scratching at the scabs of emotional wounds that shaped Spielberg into a child of divorce who chases dreams of a united family and the artificiality of domestic tranquillity. Standing in for Spielberg’s own mother, Michelle Williams once again displays tremendous range and staggeringly honest emotion as a complicated woman trapped in a life shaped by other people’s choices.
Williams’ intensity is countered by the measured calculations of Paul Dano as Burt Fabelman, a computer genius climbing the ranks of tech companies in the 1970s and ‘80s who loves and supports his son but repeatedly defines his filmmaking passion as a hobby, unwilling to recognize the potential it has to blossom into so much more. The Spielbergs… er, sorry, Fabelmans encounter harsh bouts of anti-Semitism and bullying – a reality the Schindler’s List director has explored in previous movies, but nowhere near at the level of analysis and therapeutic visual conversation that he reaches here. And Seth Rogen as Dano’s closest friend, Bennie, brings a welcome atmosphere of warmth and goofy improvisation that fuels Williams but creates ripples in the family’s tenuous dynamic.
The Fabelmans covers so much ground, but always rivets with its emotional truths.
At nearly two-and-a-half hours, the upcoming The Fabelmans can be found guilty of lingering too long in memories that are precious to Spielberg, but potentially unnecessary for the audience. And yet, every time the drama detours down an avenue that you aren’t sure how it factors into the main narrative, Kushner and Spielberg eventually prove that the sidebar was worth it, and they’re present to reveal more about the characters or personify growth during crucial moments of Sammy’s journey.
Stay with The Fabelmans. Appreciate the journey. Embrace the insights it gives you into the mind and heart of one of our greatest living storytellers. And revel in a movie that has a very good chance at winning Best Picture at the next Academy Awards. For more coverage from the Toronto International Film Festival, read up on Anna Kendrick’s career-best work in Alice, Darling, Daniel Radcliffe’s unhinged performance as “Weird” Al Yankovic, and the delight of Billy Eichner’s studio comedy, Bros.
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