Review: Spielberg Bares his Life in Touching 'The Fabelmans'

by Derek Deskins

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Wednesday November 23, 2022

When you're young there are a lot of movies that you just can't see. While I can now appreciate the work of Martin Scorsese, Paul Thomas Anderson, and Quentin Tarantino, their R-rated movies weren't exactly something that I was allowed to enjoy as a kid. But Steven Spielberg made movies I could see. From "Raiders of the Lost Ark" to "Jurassic Park," Spielberg was the first director that I could identify by name. In this way, Spielberg was my introduction to what cinematic greatness could be.

With his formative role in shaping the beginning of my film tastes, it's almost odd to think that he never really made a coming-of-age story. Sure, he made movies that focused on children in extraordinary situations ("Empire of the Sun," "E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial") but they weren't about growing up. With "The Fabelmans," Spielberg makes his coming-of-age picture, an achingly personal trip through his life that proves the man hasn't lost a beat.

At the age of six, Sammy Fabelman is treated to his first visit to the cinema. Arm-in-arm with his parents, he sits to watch Cecil B. DeMille's "The Greatest Show on Earth," being equally mesmerized and awestruck. Struggling to process the majesty that he's just witnessed, Sammy turns to film itself, recreating DeMille's epic train crashing climax with his dad's 8mm camera. As he grows, his family changes, and he physically moves to different parts of the country, but one thing remains constant: Sammy needs to make movies.

Steven Spielberg makes grand films. His movies are always enjoyed best on the largest screen possible, with bombast and the magic of imagination made real as his bellwethers. But beneath the animatronics and stunts is a loudly beating heart. Spielberg has always made movies that make you feel something as much as they make you reel in amazement. In "The Fabelmans," he dispenses with the mighty set pieces and instead bares his whole heart on the screen. Turns out, his heart was really all we needed.

"The Fabelmans" is unabashedly the story of Spielberg's adolescence and the people that surrounded him. It is not so much a movie about growing up as it is more specifically about Spielberg growing up. With the story being so close, he builds the world carefully and precisely. In no time, you come to know the Fabelmans intimately. As they grow, you see them change, and you witness how those personal changes ripple throughout the whole family. There will assuredly be a slew of reviews that cite "The Fabelmans" as a "love letter to cinema," but to describe it as such is to diminish the film itself. Movies are important to "The Fabelmans," but the people are what's important.

The many performances throughout "The Fabelmans" are complex and breathtaking. Most obviously wonderful is Michelle Williams' Mitzi, the matriarch of the family. Williams' performance is one that feels like an Oscar campaign in and of itself. And while her moments of artistic mania are demanding of attention, it is the quiet moments where the depths of her performance shine brightest. Alternatively, Paul Dano's Burt is nothing but small moments, something that the actor excels in. He conveys so many emotions with the slightest glance, lending complexity to a father role that can so often be overly simplified.

Similarly fantastic is Gabriel LaBelle in the main role of Sammy Fabelman. The pressure of playing the young director while being directed by him boggles the mind, but to do it all with such ease and heart is a delight to behold. This entire review could focus only on the variety of wonderful performances (Seth Rogen is surprisingly good, Judd Hirsch shows up to demolish the scenery for all of 10 minutes, and Julia Butters continues to prove that she will likely be the only actress we talk about in 10 years), but they are really just one part of what is altogether a divine cinematic experience.

A Spielberg picture is always a wonder to behold, but with "The Fabelmans" he does something unlike anything he's done before. Rather than grand set pieces, he allows the emotions to drive the film. The plot of "The Fabelmans" isn't even secondary, because this movie is less about the story being told and more about the people within it. The point isn't that the family moved from New Jersey to Phoenix, it's about how that move changed them and shaped them into the people they would become. But Spielberg doesn't just dwell on the sad or contemplative emotions, finding plenty of time for humor and levity (the film's final shot is such a great joke to leave on).

"The Fabelmans" is a director baring his life and soul on screen, in the most entertaining and touching way possible. Steven Spielberg has cemented himself as one of the best directors to touch the medium, and if "The Fabelmans" tells us anything, it's that he's not even close to being done.

"The Fabelmans" expands to wide release in theaters on November 23.