Steven Spielberg's playful, surprisingly loose autobiography grants a magical insight into the early life of a true cinematic master
As well as being the household name in the world of movie directors, not to mention the purveyor of many of Hollywood’s finest blockbusters, Steven Spielberg has always been one of cinema’s great chroniclers of childhood, from the richly detailed family homes of Close Encounters and E.T. to the journey of a robot boy in A.I. Artificial Intelligence. After decades upon decades of his storied career, he’s finally turned his camera on his own childhood for The Fabelmans, his most obviously personal film to date, as well as one of his most playful, a warm and bittersweet coming-of-age comedy about movies and mothers.
Like the other recent directorial autobiographies (see: The Souvenir films, Belfast, etc.), Spielberg – writing alongside regular collaborator Tony Kushner – doesn’t adapt his childhood word-for-word. His stand-in here is Sammy Fabelman (Gabriel LaBelle), an energetic and sensitive teenager in his last couple of years of high school, obsessed with making movies ever since his mum and dad took him to see The Greatest Show on Earth as a kid but also dealing with the slow implosion of his parents’ marriage and anti-Semitic bullying at school. It’s a filmmaker’s origin story, no doubt (Sammy even makes the same short films that young Spielberg did), but also a reckoning, the director trying to better understand the people that shaped him when he was young.
A collection of memories, both cherished and reviled, The Fabelmans is a lot looser in its structure than you might expect, bouncing from moment to moment in a way that can initially seem jumbled, but soon feels completely natural – we don’t remember our lives in an unbroken line, we pick and choose the most impactful moments as we go. There are, essentially, three key strands: Sammy making movies, his relationship with his parents (and their relationships with one another), and a more conventional high school dramedy. These three often intersect, but each one generally carries its own distinct tone.
Sometimes these tones gel – the wonder of the movie-making goes well with the deeply-felt sentimentality of the family stuff – but there are a few clashes, especially when the high school stuff gets involved. This could have proved a problem, but Spielberg’s exceptional eye for casting pretty much completely solves it – most of the performances are perfectly pitched for their place in the film, creating a world that feels rich and lived-in. The young LaBelle is an absolute revelation, doing incredible work shouldering such a broad and mercurial story, while Michelle Williams and Paul Dano are both magnetic as Sammy’s mum and dad.
As unstable and creatively unsatisfied mum Mitzi, Williams wheels between quiet tenderness and more manic expression – maybe it’s sometimes a bit broad, but it’s always hard to take your eyes off. Dano, meanwhile, is much more reserved as dad Burt, a clever and logical man whose inability to see past the rational has left him on the sidelines of his own life, but ultimately just as tender. Both Mitzi and Burt have an infinite ocean of love to give Sammy, even as they do so in distinct, sometimes incompatible, ways, and it’s always profoundly touching to see.
While there are a few too many speeches about the simultaneous necessity and danger of following one’s dreams, Spielberg and Kushner’s script is great at keeping the voice of every member of this sprawling cast distinct, from Sammy to his parents, to the show-stealing supporting roles. Seth Rogen does a fine line in wounded hope and self-understanding as “Uncle” Bennie – Burt’s friend and employee who is having an affair with Mitzi that is painfully obvious to all but Burt – while Judd Hirsch, Jeannie Berlin, and Robin Bartlett are all perfectly placed as the elders of the Fabelman clan. Perhaps the best role of the bunch, though, goes to a dream of a one-scene role for Spielberg’s fellow ‘70s auteur upstart David Lynch, though to say any more about that would ruin a magical surprise.
If you were expecting more of the technical masterclass Spielberg displayed in last year’s magnificent West Side Story, you may be a tad underwhelmed by The Fabelmans – this is a much smaller and more contained piece – but that’s not to say it’s not still exceptionally well-made; as this film itself notes, Spielberg was born with movies in his very bones. There are some sublime shots in here, from emotionally illuminating close-ups, packed with tiny and deeply meaningful tactile little details, to Spielberg’s trademark unshowy but immersive oners, letting us get to know the Fabelman houses, from New Jersey to Phoenix, Arizona to northern California.
Even with a couple of tonal slips and occasional repetitiveness, The Fabelmans keeps up an enrapturing pace – you don’t really feel the hefty 150 minute runtime. This is a profoundly Spielbergian movie – if you’re allergic to soppy sentiment, this may prove a fatal dose – but if anyone has earned the right to indulge themselves in waxing lyrical about the healing power of watching and making movies, it’s this man. After all, when your own name is synonymous with wonder and adventure, who else would you possibly trust to tell your own life story?
The Fablemans is released in UK cinemas on 27 January 2023.Where to watch