Steven Spielberg’s 36th (yes, 36th) film The Fabelmans is an emotionally rich passion project, charting his origin story through surprisingly candid eyes. For film lovers, it contextualises the life and work of one of the greatest to ever do it, for film dabblers, don’t let the 150 minute runtime put you off, there’s never been a better advert for “write what you know” than this.
The beauty of The Fabelmans lies in the love and empathy Spielberg shows for his parents, their imperfections and dysfunction, and the film’s understanding of, to put it lightly, questionable decision making. All of this is channelled through gorgeously lit shots against a soundtrack of Beethoven and Bach that at times puts you in a near catatonic state.
The Fabelmans begins with young Sammy (Mateo Zoryan) witnessing a train crash at the cinema in 1952 that starts a chain reaction of events that leads him to create short films of his family and friends. After screening the films back to them, he watches their laughs, gasps and applause from the back of the room, but he never revels in it. Spielberg is sure to let you know that he doesn’t create for the acclaim, he’s a storyteller in the truest sense of the word, all the more ironic then that many touted this film as “Oscar bait”.
The second and third acts centre around a teenage Sammy (Gabrielle LaBelle) and his relationship with mum, Mitsky (Michelle Williams), in the two standout performances of the film. An affectionate, should-have-been concert pianist, Mitsky has a sort of combustible artistic talent. Her flair for dancing, singing and composing overflows her heart with love and desire, as it spills everywhere, inevitably leaving others to clean up the mess.
Mitsky juggles the love she has for her husband, an rising star of computer science (Paul Dano), her kids, and their ‘uncle’ Benny (Seth Rogen). From start to finish, this film elicited every emotion you can think of. Tears, anxiety, excitement, fulfilment and laughter audible from a street away.
Although visually stunning, The Fabelmans doesn’t feel overproduced. The use of Dionne Warwick’s ‘Walk on By’ during a prom scene gave me a phantom-nostalgia for a 1960s America, and a bedroom scene between Sammy and his religious high school crush made me laugh out loud.
Much like Sammy’s childlike wonderment at the train bursting through the screen, the cinematography and shot direction made me look up in awe at a filmmaker in complete control of every cinematic atom that passes through his lens. Yet some criticism has been aimed at just that – the film being a sickly-sweet, sanitised version of events in Spielberg’s life. But other than an unnecessarily long first act, for me, The Fabelmans is close to flawless.
One of Spielberg’s funniest and most insightful to date, The Fabelmans acts almost as a cinematic procedural at times, watching Sammy meticulously cut his film in real time gave me an ASMR-like satisfaction that’s then abrupted with a perfectly executed dramatic shift. At times, The Fabelmans is an oral history of film too, but its references never saturate the script and take you out of the experience. The cameo-that-shall-not-be-named in the last 10 minutes also completely blindsided me, as did the camera framing gag, the monkey, and the prom punch (you’ll understand).
Spielberg really does transport his formative years Back to the Future in The Fabelmans, but for me it’s all tinged with a bit of melancholy, as if Spielberg was inadvertently reminding the audience that the majority of his life and work is done. For the sake of filmic education for the next generation of Sammy’s shooting 4k short films on their iPhone, I hope he’s not done for a while yet.