When you are Steven Spielberg, when do you decide to tell your life story? The famed director crafted too many classics to name throughout his fifty-year career. One could argue that his style is the most important evolution in American cinema and has doomed storytellers to chase nostalgia. At the same time, he’s poured his own story into genre films for decades. Yet, with the passing of his parents over the last few years, Spielberg finally turns the camera on himself. An exercise in autobiographical myth-making, The Fabelmans shows the birth of a filmmaker in its most vulnerable state. If it were not crafted by the greatest filmmaker in American cinema, this earnest storytelling would feel overbearing and fake. Instead, Spielberg shines with his greatest film in almost twenty years and one of the best films of 2022.

Sammy Fabelman (Mateo Zoryan) attends his first movie with his parents, Mitzi (Michelle Williams) and Burt (Paul Dano). Afterward, Sammy obsesses over how to recreate the scene that scares him, using his toy trains and father’s video camera to control the moment. As he grows older (Gabriel LaBelle), he continues experimenting with filmmaking. However, after the family moves to Arizona with “Uncle” Bennie (Seth Rogen), Mitzi suffers a terrible loss. Soon after, the family begins to see their bonds tested and broken.

(from left) Burt Fabelman (Paul Dano), Younger Sammy Fabelman (Mateo Zoryan Francis-DeFord) and Mitzi Fabelman (Michelle Williams) in The Fabelmans, co-written, produced and directed by Steven Spielberg.

One of our most famous children of divorce used the device to shape E.T. into a masterpiece of storytelling in suburbia. His issues with his father colored Close Encounters of the Third Kind, yet he also found stunning beauty in the process of leaving a family. Even stories like Duel, War of the Worlds, Jurassic Park, and Schindler’s List make it clear that Spielberg has a lot to work through. In many ways, tackling the story of his family’s fracturing feels like watching the master work through his own therapy in real-time. Yet, in many ways, The Fabelmans does not just provide additional insight into the man, but in many ways, is the key to his filmography as a whole. Even the Close Encounters character no longer feels like a sharp attack on his father, but in many ways, is reflective of the worst elements in both of his parents.

Beyond the pure earnestness of Spielberg’s vulnerability, there’s an acknowledgment of his shortcomings. A sequence late in the film shows a quick flash of Sammy wielding a camera, yet we’ve long established his placement in the room. This may be the most honest he’s ever been with his audience, admitting to us that his own semblance of control in his life came with a camera in his hands. He literalizes the moments of his family’s collapse as upsetting and out of control as viewing a literal trainwreck. No matter what happens to Sammy in the next fifty years of his life, he will try to capture this moment and control his own narrative.

Gabriel LaBelle as Sammy Fabelman in The Fabelmans, co-written, produced and directed by Steven Spielberg.

Spielberg has long been one of cinema’s greatest visionaries because of how his camera captures subtly. One could argue he’s among the greatest directors in terms of blocking (how actors and the camera move throughout a scene). In this regard, The Fabelmans may very well be the most powerful film he’s made in decades. He creates dozens of instantly iconic images and pushes his actors into positions that change the entire demeanor of the scene.

During a camping trip, the three men in the film watch Mitzi dance, each positioned differently within the shot and viewing her dance in entirely different contexts. Another shot provides a view inside the head of a man Spielberg once reviled, providing both Spielberg and his father a moment of reconciliation. Spielberg puts together some of the most impressive oners of his career (at the dance, at the beach, in a car, as part of the film within the film), all while maintaining the emotion of his story.

The timeliness of The Fabelmans hits hard in 2022. Spielberg has long been a reactive filmmaker, allowing his films to take on greater importance through his observations. He struggled with 9/11 and the War on Terror with War of the Worlds and Munich, but both films were made after these cataclysmic events. The same can be said about biological technology and cloning after Jurassic Park or the ACA Healthcare debate with Lincoln. Yet The Fabelmans lands in a world where several pop culture figures have stirred up issues around antisemitism, reminding us these views are not just held by Nazis marching in Charlottesville. It is undeniable that Spielberg had this in mind when he and Tony Kushner wrote the film, and the director of one of the landmark films about the Holocaust provides us a far more tangible example of hate through his own life story.

(from left) Sammy Fabelman (Gabriel LaBelle) and Uncle Boris (Judd Hirsch) in The Fabelmans, co-written, produced and directed by Steven Spielberg.

Yet those who may be scared that Spielberg turned his own life into melodrama will be surprised by the humor throughout the film. To paraphrase Damon Lindeloff, laughter also exists as a funeral. Spielberg handles the crucial aspects of his life through a comedic lens on many occasions, even when characters seemingly have manic episodes. Mitzi excitedly loads her family into a car to chase a tornado, while Burt laughs off at her antics until he realizes what she is doing. The laughter disappears from his face, but the scene continues to be inherently funny as she drives away, leaving her husband and baby behind. The last act of The Fabelmans resembles a high school movie as Sammy prepares for college. A scene with his high school girlfriend might be the most subversive, proactive scene in any Spielberg movie, featuring multiple laughs per minute.

Perhaps most surprisingly, Spielberg does not simply frame movies as his escape. Other characters in The Fabelmans certainly appreciate it as escapist art, but for Sammy, it is the compulsion to create that is temporarily satiated. He focuses on the tactility of it all, including the process of assembling and recutting. Rarely do we see Sammy Fabelman actually enjoying the films that inspire, but instead, he’s called to create his own images.

Art above life could easily be misconstrued in this film. Instead, he brings the unique technical wizardry of his father and combines it with the purely artistic side of his mother to fully marry the two sides of his brain. He may be a wizard with the camera, but without his near OCD-like obsession, he may never have turned the camera on in the first place. Yes, Spielberg loves cinema, but he adores the control it grants him over an unstable life.

Michelle Williams as Mitzi Fabelman in The Fabelmans, co-written, produced and directed by Steven Spielberg.

None of this would be possible without the incredible crew assembled to tell his life story. Williams sometimes plays Mitzi a little big, but she’s also a woman rejecting domesticity as it’s been presented to her. She’s a warrior, even The Fabelmans makes it clear that she’s struggling with manic depression or bipolar disorder. Spielberg never puts a name on her illness, but it was unlikely to have been accurately diagnosed at the time. Instead, we see a woman struggling with existence, and the artist in her tries to break through.

Dano’s performance should be taught in schools. It’s a masterclass in subtly, and while it feels like the larger-than-life performances around him should swallow him up, it’s impossible to forget the heartbreak on his face. Dano sews a tapestry of sincerity while trying to understand why the world he’s built is leaving him behind. Rather than turn this frustration into anger and resentment, he approaches it with love and genuine optimism.

(from left) Monica Sherwood (Chloe East) and Sammy Fabelman (Gabriel LaBelle) in The Fabelmans, co-written, produced and directed by Steven Spielberg.

LaBelle’s performance is more than just mimicry. He takes on a thankless role, one that asks him to test our patience with his entitlement and still cheer for his journey. Yes, we know he will grow up to be one of our greatest filmmakers, but Spielberg owns that he was once a monstrous teen driven by unwieldy emotions and raging hormones. LaBelle’s best when opposite Williams and the subtlety of their changing relationship as it forever alters his life. Perhaps most impressive is the divide between a teen at the top of the world in Arizona and the genuinely frustrated person he becomes in California. While one would expect Sammy’s confidence to carry over in some way, his inability to harness that power until later in his life helps his neurotic nature ring true.

The surrounding cast also shines throughout. Rogen gets one of the best scenes of his career, though some will be unable to divorce the star from his offscreen persona. Julia Butters once again steals a scene as Sammy’s sister. It’s a subtle but powerful sequence that shows the love between brother and sister to perfection. In only a few scenes, Judd Hirsch leaves an undeniable mark on the film and our characters. He is so good and leaves such a mark on the film that he stays with you long after you leave the theater.

Chloe East gets the funniest scene of the year and absolutely crushes it. Even Oakes Fegley, Sam Rechner, and Isabelle Kusman deliver succinct but purposeful performances that showcase genuine star power. Do not sleep on anyone in the cast, especially the teens, becoming huge stars in the future. A cameo at the end of the film brings out a collaboration you never knew you wanted.

(from left) Burt Fabelman (Paul Dano) and Sammy Fabelman (Gabriel LaBelle, back to camera) in The Fabelmans, co-written, produced and directed by Steven Spielberg.

Perhaps most fittingly, Spielberg’s frequent collaborators deliver their best work in years. Kushner and Spielberg’s screenplay is wildly insightful and amazingly fluid. A surprise to no one, John Williams comes to play with his most unique work in years. Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski removes the gritty realism from his lenses, adding a dreamlike quality to the film. Even Michael Kahn shows off some of his best work in collaboration with Sarah Broshar. The two editors cut the film in a way that helps the two and a half hours fly by.

Spielberg crafts his most reflective film in many senses, but there’s a universal quality that cannot be ignored. In its comedy, tragedy, and beauty, it is absurdly powerful. The Fabelmans will not be his last film, but if we never see the name Spielberg on screen again, what a swan song. In truth, The Fabelmans may mean more to this critic than the average filmgoer. He is responsible for three of my five favorite films of all time. Yet, the man’s impact on American cinema and shaping the world of pop culture should allow him a minute to celebrate himself. This is far more powerful than any biopic of Spielberg will ever be because he’s let us into his heart in ways that never really felt possible.

Alan’s Rating: 9/10

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