When he directed Jaws in 1975, Steven Spielberg was hailed as a wunderkind, an overnight sensation. The truth is that Spielberg had been cranking out movies for most of his young life. As a precocious teenager, his amateur oeuvre was both irresistibly innocent and sweepingly ambitious: Old West gunslingers and WWII already pointed to the box office maestro he would become. Now, as his career settles into its third act, Spielberg takes a loving, bittersweet look into the years that shaped him. The result is startling in its sweetness and vulnerability. The Fabelmans looks and feels like nothing he’s ever done.
This might not be a pure autobiography, but I suspect it’s really, really close. We meet Sammy Fabelman (Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord), Spielberg’s proxy, as an eight-year-old boy. His parents are a study in contrasts: Burt (Paul Dano) is amiable, mannered, and analytical, while Mitzi (Michelle Williams) plays piano and gets lost in daydreams. They take Sammy to see DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth, and the boy is gobsmacked. He commanders the family camera, creates his own movies, and never stops.
What follows is two distinct narrative threads, stitched into the same tapestry. In one, Sammy comes of age and comes to terms with the simple truth that he is an artist. (Gabriel LaBelle plays Sammy as a high schooler.) A visiting uncle (Judd Hirsch, in a knockout cameo), who once worked as a Hollywood lion tamer, calls him on it: Sammy may love his family, but movies are the love of his life, and the star he will ultimately steer by. Along the other thread, we see the slow disintegration of the Fabelman family. Sammy’s camera documents everything, and it even captures Burt and Mitzi drifting away from each other.
Of course, it’s also more complicated than that. Bennie (Seth Rogen) may be a friend to the family, but he’s much more than he seems. Warmer and more effusive than Burt could ever be, Bennie becomes a de facto uncle for the kids, and an empathetic presence for Mitzi. Their friendship evolves into an affair. Sammy accidentally shoots footage of Bennie and Mitzi canoodling, which ultimately puts the family in crisis.
If the fracturing of the Fabelman family forms the movie’s major through-line, Spielberg attaches many personal vignettes along the way. We see his joy in filming Western and war epics out in the Arizona desert, where his buddies eagerly plop to the ground as squib-splattered corpses. All this changes when Burt moves the family to California, prompting Mitzi and Sammy to sink into a deep malaise. The WASPy, Nordic kids bully Sammy for being a Jew, and send him home covered in blood and bruises. Meanwhile, a pretty classmate (Chloe East) regards him as a novelty, and supplies his first kiss. (A fanatical Christian, she wills their smooch to happen with a fanatical prayer.)
These little moments ache with nostalgia, as Spielberg pores over the highs and lows of his teenage years. And while The Fabelmans teems with sentiment, it’s never saccharine or goofy. Despite many moments of droll observation, heartache is a recurring theme of the movie. Over the course of 152 minutes, the Fabelmans deal with just about every kind of loss.
Unsurprisingly, Spielberg deploys his usual crew of Oscar-winning talent, and they match his careful restraint. Cinematographer Janusz Kamiński delivers flourishes of real wonder, such as Mitzi twirling in the headlights of a campsite, but he also frames many simple shots that allow the actors the space and time to work. (Note the scene where Bennie and Sammy argue outside of a pawn shop, Kamiński’s camera maneuvers around them like a nosy bystander.)
Then there’s John Williams, who conducts what he promises will be his penultimate score. His work here is understated, melodic, and tinged with bittersweet motifs. Even then, his presence is only occasional: Strings and a lonely vibraphone will rise in the speakers, only to tiptoe away. If this movie is a bittersweet experience for Spielberg, it clearly is for Williams, as well.
Spielberg’s meditation on his own youth and loss of innocence is also a showcase for powerful acting. LeBelle is an absolute knockout. He nails the geeky giddiness that that must’ve emanated from young Spielberg, a prodigy neck-deep in his element. Dano is also revelatory, playing the patient zero for a dozen dysfunctional Spielbergian dads. His Burt is loving, oblivious, and maddeningly distant. Rogen does fine work as Bennie, whose main function is to be everything Burt is not: Jovial, silly, and sympathetic to Mitzi’s flights of fancy.
As Mitzi, Williams will deservedly bring home the awards. She creates a fully-rounded character–brilliant, freewheeling, and prone to bursts of confounding eccentricity. Through her unhinged imagination, we gain a greater sense of Spielberg’s. In fact, an overarching theme of the film is the deep debt he owes to both parents. If Leah Spielberg (Mitzi) inspired Steven to reach for the stars, Arnold (Burt) gave him the workmanship to bring them within reach.
I love this movie. Watching Spielberg explore his youth gave a chance to reflect on my own. I was once like young Sammy, awestruck by the wizardry unfolding on a movie screen. Crazy thing is, a lot of those movies were by Spielberg. Whether it was the boulder rolling after Indiana Jones, or E.T.’s glowing mothership, his movies made me fall in love with movies. I’ve never needed a deeper understanding of the man behind it all, but I’m glad I have it, all the same. The Fabelmans is funny, heartbreaking, and wondrous. It’s one of the best films of this year.
152 min. PG-13. In theaters and on demand.