As well as a film and its technical nuances, I’m the kind of person who can love a film emotively as much as the full package. I also believe that many first-watch encounters are connected to your individual expectations for the story you’re going to see, including your emotional attachment, and maybe even bias for the filmmaker; never forgetting how you feel in the moment, and adding to that where you find yourself in life, both in age and creatively.
Like so many, I revisit favourites from over the years and as each day goes by, you see things in a different way, or understand moments in a distinct new light. This is why I’ve always thought some of the best film insights, and I apply this to music as well, come from letting the art work in and giving yourself time to reflect, consider and then analyse – and in days of so-called instant needs for reaction, surely that’s just as important as ever?
For The Fabelmans, all these factors play a part. The semi-autobiographical story from legendary director Steven Spielberg is incredibly his thirty-fifth feature film in charge, with a professional career that spans over 50 decades, an incredible feat in any medium. It also comes with high expectations and not just due to his status but because we’re going deeply personal, so much so that the Director literally introduces the film himself, and tells us exactly what it is – so unusually (even if you’re not ‘into’ every aspect of how a film comes to the screen) you’ll know what this story means before the title sequence kicks in.
The Fabelmans is based on Spielberg’s own adolescence, and his initial encounters and eventual experiences as a young filmmaker, whilst also showing us his family history – and the impact of everything that happened during those years – told through the fictional Sammy Fabelman, a young man who’s very much the shadow of Spielberg himself. Co-written with Tony Kushner, who he worked with on Lincoln, Munich and West Side Story, Spielberg’s been working on the idea since 1999 but has waited because he didn’t want any story to offend them. So, after his Mum, Leah, and Dad, Arnold, passed away in 2017 and 2020, respectively, the film is dedicated to them and I think, even with all the reality on show, they’d be proud of the story and their representations.
Telling the story of your life, especially when you have all the power to tell it however you wish and it’s easy to slip into over-nostalgic, The Fabelmans is never mawkish, nor hyper-sentimental and with it produces a grounded, genuinely charming story of Spielberg’s youth. We get an authentic look inside Sammy’s relationship with his family growing up, how his love for film comes to be, and while both his parents are a huge influence on who he is today, and different personality aspects, it’s a definite love letter to his mother and their deep connection that clearly existed throughout their lives together.
Michelle Williams as Sammy’s mother Mitzi Schildkraut-Fabelman is utterly exceptional, fully immersed in her character and we believe we’re watching a proper biographical recalling. Each moment feels intimate and unique; you’re in there. Of course, depending on your relationship with your own parents, I believe it’s impossible not to feel touched by Williams’ pure storytelling, full of courage and pathos in equal measure, enclosed in the complication of life and the world she partly resided in, and the one she consequentially chose to raise her children in.
Paul Dano’s Bert Fabelman, Sammy’s father, could have been seen in a negative light, as some filmmakers might dial up the drama, seeing as he moves the family around the States and never completely comprehends the depths of his wife’s artistry, but he never smothers her and in truth continues to support, understand and love her with pure heart. Even when times get harder. He’s a patient presence amongst the unsettled nature of other things in his life.
There’s also another fine turn from Seth Rogen, as the families friend and ‘Uncle’ Bennie. He adds a humorous subtle side and has a big role to play there, of which you’ll come to learn, but does it with gravitas and knowledge. While we don’t see as much of them in a story sense, Sammy’s sisters, Reggie (Julia Butters), Natalie (Keeley Karsten), and Lisa (Sophia Kopera) are an essential part of his life, even though all younger. They give him a ready-made cast for his early amateur films but also show us another part of the supportive family life.
And then, of course, there’s Gabriel LaBelle as Sammy Fabelman (of course a young Steven Spielberg) and he’s exemplary. Not only can you see elements of Spielberg in his mannerisms, or hands on the hips, he encapsulates the very nature and passion of the director. This is a young man full of verve and vision, while also dealing the rough seas of that transition into adulthood and – yes, we’ve been there – Even if you can only fully see it when you years away from it – and LaBelle is charming, rooted in his beliefs and a captivating watch.
It’s also important to give a mention to the scene-stealing Judd Hirsch as the bolshie, combative Granduncle Boris Schildkraut, who teaches Sammy important lessons about life in an invasive, yet vital, interaction. It’s incredibly good indeed. Chloe East as Sammy’s love interest Monica is also important and features in some life-learning moments, and you’ll love certain sequences for sure and, oh, there’s a cameo that’s excellent, but you can discover that yourself.
Overall, it creates a fine entire feature, not forgetting John Williams, who at 90, continues to excel in his film scores and add those memorable motifs into moments that not only accompany but enhance without ever being over-bearing, of course – what else would we expect? And in a filmic sense, it all looks splendid with the era’s we move through looking authentic, and although clean-cut overall, we’ve got cinematographer Janusz Kamiński also returning to work with Spielberg once again, it’s clear this is a collaboration of equal love and respect – across the building of a new story.
I also loved the little nods to the director’s famous shadow shots, the art of framing a shot and an early celebrate of how good he is at telling a story, right up there on the big screen.
So, as I began, the satisfaction with The Fabelmans comes in the viewing itself, and it truly hits every hope and expectation. He may be one of the most famous filmmakers in the world, of the modern era, and this is an absolutely beautiful, human story with warmth and heart aplenty and that final shot, after an entertaining setup? You’ll love it.