The Fabelmans

Review by Luke Bradley

In the wake of films like Roma (Alfonso Cuarón, 2018), Belfast (Kenneth Branagh, 2022), and the recent Armageddon Time (James Gray, 2022), an aversion to the “director retells their childhood” subgenre is growing. If ever a director has earned the benefit of the doubt, however, it’s Steven Spielberg. With The Fabelmans (Spielberg, 2022), he once again proves – if it somehow needed proving – that he’s one of the greatest living directors, weaving an expansive yet inward account of his upbringing.

Following the Fabelman family, the film allegorises Spielberg’s adolescence in nuanced and enrapturing fashion. The film brands itself as “a love letter to the world of cinema” – a sales pitch as worn as a 1950s 8mm film reel – but this feeling rings true. Sammy Fabelman’s (Gabriel LaBelle) odyssey as a young prospective filmmaker is fascinating to watch, his look of wonder in the cinema a relatable sentiment. Spielberg himself referred to the film as “the most personal film [he’s] ever made”, and this personal element fuels the film. Watching the Fabelman family both nourish and challenge Sammy’s ambitions as a filmmaker makes for a heart-warming and moving experience. At the heart of this is a truly star-making turn from Gabriel LaBelle, whose performance can be described no better way than to say that you feel like you’re watching a young, blossoming Spielberg at all times. 

The Fabelman family is realised by a pitch-perfect array of performances. Michelle Williams is wonderfully aloof and sensitive as Mitzi Fabelman, her depth of emotion rising to match the film’s most intensely dramatic scenes. Her assertion that “movies are dreams that you never forget” underscores everything the film shows in highlighting Sammy’s struggle to balance his family life and his passion. Paul Dano as Burt Fabelman is understated to perfection. Burt’s engineering mind brushing up against Sammy’s artistic inclinations is a constant through thread in the film, and one that clearly informed Spielberg’s trajectory as a filmmaker. Seth Rogen, Judd Hirsch, Keeley Karsten and Julia Butters round out the Fabelman family perfectly, with secondary but essential performances. The Fabelmans has an overwhelmingly palpable sense of love for cinema, running throughout the entire film. But crucially, this is a story of a family falling apart and coming together. The film’s family dynamic is incredibly rich and layered, in a manner that only Spielberg’s personal insight could facilitate. Predictably brilliant direction aside, he chose a fantastic cast of actors to bring his family’s story to the big screen.

Even with this raw emotional centre, The Fabelmans knows how to have fun with its premise. Plenty of sequences reveal the inspiration behind Spielberg’s most iconic film sequences – Jaws (Steven Spielberg, 1975) and Poltergeist (Steven Spielberg, 1982) are echoed to brilliant effect. One lengthy sequence, in which Sammy coordinates and directs his fellow boy scouts for his first war epic, is captivating to behold. The Fabelmans’ duality of family and film is what makes the movie shine. If other elements are minimised as a result – John Williams’ score, while beautiful, is fleeting – it is to serve Spielberg’s most impassioned direction in years. With The Fabelmans, Spielberg offers an intimate look at his upbringing that will reshape how we perceive his unmatchable catalogue of films, forever. 

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