This review contains spoilers for “The Fabelmans” (2022).
I saw Steven Spielberg’s new movie “The Fabelmans” over Thanksgiving break, and I think it might be his best since 2002’s “Catch Me If You Can” — it is certainly one of the best movies I’ve seen in a while. Referred to as Spielberg’s autobiographical film, it doesn’t take long to realize that “The Fabelmans” really is the story of his family — Spielberg’s upbringing in a Jewish household, his discovery and passion for film and the dissolution of his parents’ marriage. What unfolds is a tender and sorrowful story about Spielberg’s discovery of filmmaking and how, in the words of Spielberg’s uncle in the film, “family and art will tear you in two.”
Spielberg shares his story with a cinematic warmth reminiscent of “E.T.” The cinematography is tinted blue, which adds a vignette-like feeling to each scene. The blue filter only adds to the feeling that this is a distant memory that has ebbed in Spielberg’s consciousness, waiting to be drawn to the surface and realized in an artistic piece. The overall effect hearkens back to classic cinema, and truly, “The Fabelmans” feels like a movie-movie, in the “go to the theaters and watch something beautiful and bigger than yourself” sort of way.
The cinematography is what makes this movie especially compelling. I was reminded while watching “The Fabelmans” that, as viewers, we are in the hands of one of the greatest living film directors. The cuts are clean and restrained with nothing flashy or melodramatic, yet they are still charged with meaning.
In one of the most powerful scenes, the young Steven Speilberg, named Sammy Fabelman in the film and portrayed by Gabrielle LaBelle, realizes his mother is having an emotional affair with his father’s best friend while watching footage he took on a family picnic. The scene is shot simply; just a close up of Sammy’s face and brief glimpses at the footage itself. There’s nothing showy about the way it is shot, and yet the intimacy and grief portrayed in the moment brought me to tears. In another scene, Sammy’s mother Mitzi (Michelle Williams) dances in front of the headlights of a parked car while wearing a sheer nightgown. The camera takes in the magical, almost eerie moment and the mesmerized expressions of the family that watches her. Here, lighting and score meet with cinematography to capture a vivid, palpable memory of Spielberg’s mother.
Spielberg’s memories — and the nostalgia and the grief that go with them — are complemented by John Williams’ soundtrack. Williams has almost always composed Spielberg’s soundtracks, from the adventures of “E.T.” and “Indiana Jones” to the terror-inducing “Jaws” to what might be the greatest movie ever made, “Schindlers List.” For “The Fabelmans,” Williams’ score differs significantly from previous soundtracks of his. He shies away from his typical epic-scale quality in favor of a more classical and minimalist approach. Particularly with “Mitzi’s Dance,” I noted similarities to Eric Satie’s “Trois Gnossienne” and Claude Debussy’s “Reverie.” Whether these allusions are intentional is irrelevant — the effect is fitting considering that Spielberg’s mother is a classical pianist in the film and in real life. The classical focus of the soundtrack, featuring eerie xylophones and trembling harps, compliments the dream-like spell the film casts over viewers.
This memory or dream of Spielberg’s childhood is brought to life by actors Paul Dano and Michelle Williams, who play his parents. Here, the quality of acting and the screenwriting by Spielberg and Tony Kushner (“Lincoln,” “West Side Story”) work to tell the hard truth in a manner that honors Spielberg’s parents’ memory. Both the acting and the screenwriting were some of the strongest aspects of the movie. Much of the film covers the breakdown of his parent’s marriage. It is clear that Spielberg’s character Sammy is devastated by this dissolution, and to some extent blames his mother for her self-centered pursuit of hedonism and his father for making career choices at the expense of the family. And yet, despite all their failings, Spielberg depicts his mother and father with tenderness. This charitable portrait suggests that while Spielberg wants to grapple with his childhood, he also wishes to give his parents due honor.
Mitzi is a bubbling brook of mirth. She is an attentive and doting mother, and the main parental figure that recognizes Sammy’s talent and encourages him to pursue filmmaking. Williams’ haunting performance captures her playful character who eventually devolves into listless homesickness. In one chilling scene, Sammy reveals to his mother that he knows about the affair and draws her into the closet where he regularly watches films with her. At first Mitzi smiles brightly, thinking that they are about to create another sweet mother-son memory, but when he pulls away and closes the closet door behind him, her smile subtly fades. It was a stirring moment when I watched her expression change as the footage of the affair unfolded before her eyes — and a powerful testament to William’s acting capabilities.
Similarly, Burt, the father, is depicted as caring profoundly for his wife and family. While Sammy seems to resent his father uprooting the family to further his career at IBM, it is obvious throughout the movie that Burt is a gentle and affectionate presence. Paul Dano’s performance was so realistic that often I forgot who he was and fully believed the character he was playing. Burt’s character is a bumbling scientist, translated well by Dano’s awkward physical posture and breathy voice.
LaBelle delivered a warm, emotional breakout performance as Sammy Fabelman, who is an autobiographical representation of Spielberg. He captured Sammy’s passion and brilliance, as well as his teenage shyness with endearing acting. There’s a moment toward the end of the movie when one of Sammy’s highschool bullies breaks down sobbing because Sammy chose to depict him kindly — as if he was “flying” — in his short film for the highschool. LaBelle delivers an emotional and comic performance in this scene that captures both Sammy’s nervousness and his artistic instinct.
“The Fabelmans” is a return to classic cinema — stories etched with love and grief that depict deeply human characters struggling to grasp something higher than themselves. Spielberg manages to make a movie that feels instantly classic, without being cliche or trite. There are no neat endings or pretty ribbons tied in his film, and the film doesn’t end with his parents reconciling. And yet, the film’s ending — with an amusing David Lynch cameo playing western director John Ford — gave me hope as the viewer for Sammy, for Spielberg. Explaining a painting to Sammy, David Lynch as Ford explains in his raspy voice: “When the horizon’s at the top, it’s interesting. When the horizon’s at the bottom, it’s interesting. When the horizon’s in the middle, it’s boring.” Sammy is visibly inspired by this advice, and as the viewer I know Sammy will go on to make films that portray the highs and lows of family life, and somehow pave a path where, perhaps, art and family does not have to tear him in two.