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The Fablemans is part memoir, part domestic drama, and part ode to the magic of cinema. To put it another way: It’s a Steven Spielberg movie. Throughout his career, Spielberg’s real life childhood has been the foundational theme of his artistry. He talks openly about how his parents’ divorce influences his films, but it’s easy to see even without his confirmation. Broken homes are common in his work. Many films feature a late scene of familial reconciliation that the stories don’t really need, but the storyteller does. The director, once accused of having a Peter Pan complex for being so fixated on his childhood, even made an actual Peter Pan movie, 1991’s Hook. But he’s never created anything as nakedly autobiographical as The Fabelmans, his own slightly fictionalized coming-of-age story and a lesson in how cinema can both ruin and save your life.
It opens on the wide eyes of a young Sammy Fabelman (Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord) moments before he is taken by his parents to his first movie, a big-screen showing of the 1952 circus drama The Greatest Show on Earth. Cut to a few months later and young Sammy, having been gifted a model train for Hanukkah, recreates that film’s thrilling train crash sequence in his basement with a home movie camera. “He’s trying to get control over it,” his mother says, which explains both Sammy’s new hobby and Spielberg’s intent, but in another sense, the young artist is simply going through a necessary progression: First you copy art, then you copy life.
Eventually, life starts to happen to him. The Fabelmans tracks Sammy (played winningly by newcomer Gabriel LaBelle as a teenager) and his growing awareness of the strange dynamics within his own family: his father, Burt (Paul Dano), a genius-level engineer, and his mother, Mitzi (Michelle Williams), who has both the soul of an artist and a nervous temperament that holds her back from happiness. There are also two secondary father-type figures, Uncle Boris (Judd Hirsch), who offers Sammy some essential wisdom on the inexorable tension between art and life, and “Uncle” Benny (Seth Rogen), Burt’s coworker and best friend who spends more time with the family than seems normal. At first, Sammy takes these complex dynamics for granted, but his budding interest in cinema gives him a new lens through which to view it. His camera sees family secrets that the human eye cannot.
The film’s parallel tracks—the dissolution of the Fabelman family and Sammy’s burgeoning passion for cinema—only crash together at a few key moments, but there’s little need for visible sparks when every sequence is rendered with so much care. The domestic drama satisfies in a familiar way, brought to life by brilliant casting and perceptive performances. Williams nails the mannerisms of a ’60s housewife, but with suppressed passion emerging out of every crack. Dano, known for his eccentric roles, responds with a learned submissiveness, a genius who happily plays second fiddle in his home.
Of course, another way to look at The Fabelmans is as a superhero origin story, a myth of how a young Jewish boy from Arizona grew up to be one of the greatest filmmakers of his generation. The director’s love of movies is made manifest in ways both practical and spiritual, from the painstaking portrayal of film being spliced together on Sammy’s rudimentary editing machine to the way LaBelle’s eyes slowly recede; as his love of film grows, he begins to become a professional observer. We’re watching the birth of a director, and we should appreciate that Spielberg was wise enough not to include any obvious Easter eggs for his later films. (A tackier version of this film would include a moment at an aquarium with young Spielberg staring at a shark and imagining the possibilities.)
Still, there are moments that aren’t that far off. The very fact that Spielberg’s childhood has been a known subtext in so many of his works, from Close Encounters of the Third Kind to Catch Me If You Can, inspires us to make those comparisons. After making his childhood bully break down in tears, Sammy promises not to expose the boy’s vulnerability. “Unless,” he grins, “I make a movie about it someday.” Inserting metatext into a memoir is risky, but Spielberg is one of the few artists able to pull it off. You can always sense his presence behind the camera, even when telling stories about dinosaurs gone wild or aliens trying to wipe out humanity. It would be phony to remove that element here just because this story is about himself.
While The Fabelmans isn’t Spielberg’s last film—he already has a new action movie lined up—it nonetheless feels like a summation. It’s as if he has finally purged the roiling childhood trauma that was lodged in his gut for these many years. Who can say why? Maybe the pandemic left him looking inward, as it did for so many of us. Or maybe Peter Pan finally grew up, although he didn’t leave his imagination behind. Spielberg’s lifelong project of melding self-confession with old-fashioned entertainment is fully present in this latest work. For 50 years, he has wrestled honorably with these ideals, and the audience has reaped the rewards. The Fabelmans is just another gift from one of cinema’s great masters.
The Fabelmans opens nationwide on Nov. 23.