The Fabelmans Review: Steven Spielberg’s Autobiographical Masterpiece

Jan 1, 2023

This review was originally part of our coverage for the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival.

For over fifty years, Steven Spielberg has continuously wowed audiences by showing them the power of film, the pure bliss and magic inherent in the medium that few other filmmakers have been able to show as effectively. In his incredible career, Spielberg has made the impossible real, brought entire worlds to life, and for many of us, was the filmmaker who first showed us the true beauty and power of film. Yet even with his most moving films, it’s only felt like we’re getting a glimpse of who Spielberg is—a tiny peek into the life of one of the most iconic directors ever. Yet with his latest film, The Fabelmans, Spielberg gets deeply personal and introspective in a way that we’ve never seen from him before, as he explores his childhood in one of the most moving, honest, and poignant films of Spielberg’s already impressive filmography.
Naturally, The Fabelmans begins at the movies, as seven-year-old Sammy Fabelman (Mateo Zoryna Francis-Deford) is about to go see his first movie: 1952’s The Greatest Show on Earth. He’s scared to go into the dark theater, but his parents reassure him that everything will be okay. His father Burt (Paul Dano), a computer engineer, explains to his son in detail the process of film, how it’s simply images rapidly moving through a projector—a logical explanation of something magical from an extremely logical man. Whereas Sammy’s mother Mitzi (Michelle Williams) explains that movies are like dreams coming to life, a place of wonderful opportunity. This combination of attitudes towards movies will be integral in Sammy—and Steven Spielberg’s—lives, as his style will be a combination of both these viewpoints.

But the movies aren’t just a dark room to watch dreams come true for Sammy. After witnessing a train crash in the film, he’s determined to recreate what he’s seen with his new train set. Sammy states that he needs to see the train crash, and with the help of his mother and their family’s camera, a young Sammy is able to bring this dream to life again, but on his own terms. The Fabelmans is full of truly breathtaking moments like these, where we’re not only watching a young child discover his love of film, and a love that will last his entire life, but we’re watching a director who has made magic come to life show the audience when he first felt that magic he now gives to the viewer.

Yet the majority of The Fabelmans shows us the teenage Sammy (Gabriel LaBelle), as he becomes a more proficient filmmaker, and learns from his life experiences to get even better at his craft. Even at an early age, Sammy can tell that this isn’t just a phase for him. When his father calls his filmmaking a hobby, Sammy always rebels against that description, as if he can feel deep in his bones that this is becoming the core of who he truly is. He finds the clicking of the camera to be comforting, his little editing studio to be a comfort, and the problem-solving of how to make his films even more affecting to be a difficult yet extremely rewarding task. We’re watching a master discover himself, and in that, watching Spielberg look back on his past and put together where his passion came from.

Image via Universal

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In doing that, The Fabelmans is like delving into Spielberg’s childhood and watching his memories come to life on the screen—something a young Sammy almost certainly never saw as a possibility. Spielberg shows us his process in making his earliest film at a young age, his inspirations, and the moments in his life that influenced him to make his early films the way they were. Sammy also films his family, getting to see his mother, father, sisters and his father’s best friend Bennie (Seth Rogen) in a way that no one else in the family can see. Sammy captures everything with his camera: the joys, the pain, and with that, sees the power that crafting a film can have—both good and bad. As Sammy’s Uncle Boris (an excellent Judd Hirsch) says in a family visit, he’s a junkie for art.

With the benefit of hindsight, Spielberg can explore his past and also see where he learned just how powerful film can be. For Sammy, film isn’t just a form of entertainment, it’s a way he can manipulate emotion—whether intentional or not. Framing something just the right way can make a person feel triumphant or like a monster. Sammy can bring great beauty into the world, or he can completely alter lives. While Sammy does this on a very micro level, it’s easy to see how Spielberg would take these lessons to make some of the greatest films ever made. Through film, Spielberg can make people see themselves, or who they want to be, and with The Fabelmans, he’s attempting to do that to himself for maybe the first time, showing the warts and all in his origin story of sorts.

In making this nostalgic and unapologetically sentimental look back, Spielberg has brought an absolutely incredible team along with him. Co-written by Tony Kusher (Lincoln) and Spielberg (his first screenplay since 2001’s A.I. Artificial Intelligence), The Fabelmans takes great care in bringing Spielberg’s story to life, and even though this is an extremely personal story, The Fabelmans always remains poignant and almost emotionally overwhelming. Janusz Kamiński’s warm cinematography adds the glow of memory and love for a time long past in every frame, while John Williams’ score is naturally moving, yet never overwhelms the story at hand.

Image via Universal

But it’s the cast here that really brings Spielberg’s past to life. LaBelle is phenomenal as teenage Sammy, an extremely difficult role to pull off—especially considering he’s being directed by the real life person he’s portraying—and yet, he nails every transition and important moment in the young Spielberg’s life. Williams is giving a heartbreaking performance, where she tries to put a smile on for her family, while struggling with her deep unhappiness. As one would expect from Williams, the actress can say so much with just a simple look, a testament to her brilliance and understated nature, even in a role that can often be larger-than-life. Dano, on the other hand is reserved and quiet, yet also pulls off this internal struggle, albeit one that isn’t hardly the focus of this narrative.

Yet maybe two of the most arresting performances come from supporting roles that are integral in the life of young Sammy. The first is Hirsch’s Uncle Boris, a character who shows Sammy that his dreams of becoming a filmmaker could actually become a reality. He’s a bolt of energy in the middle of this film, and while his screen time is fairly minimal, his impact is felt throughout this story. But especially great is Rogen as Bennie, the close family friend that becomes almost a surrogate uncle to the Fabelman children. This is hands down Rogen’s best dramatic performance so far, one that shows the layers of a person, as we watch Sammy’s opinion of this character change over the course of the film. It’s a deceptively powerful role for Rogen, one that packs a punch in his final moments, and highlights the gray area that we all exist in.

With The Fabelmans, Spielberg finally opens himself up to the audience in an extremely vulnerable and moving way. For decades, Spielberg has shown us ourselves through the magic of his movies, and with The Fabelmans, he finally shows us who he is, the good and the bad, and pain and the joys, the magic and the mayhem. Like with last year’s West Side Story, Spielberg has proven himself an undeniable master that can still surprise us with his abilities all these years later, a filmmaker who has consistently changed the possibilities of film, and continues to do so with each new project. Spielberg has given us all so much magic over the course of our lives, and The Fabelmans becomes yet another Spielberg masterpiece, but this time, by showing us how this magic came to be in his own life.

Rating: A

The Fabelmans is now playing in theaters.

Disclaimer: This story is auto-aggregated by a computer program and has not been created or edited by filmibee.
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