- “The Fabelmans” loosely recounts the youth of director Steven Spielberg.
- It’s one of the best movies of the year with captivating performances and a heartfelt story.
- The movie opens in limited release on Friday and nationwide on November 23.
Steven Spielberg has always been reluctant to put himself in his movies (minus the glaring anomaly that was “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial”). But with “The Fabelmans,” that all changes.
For his most personal movie yet, the legendary director goes several steps further than putting his heart on his sleeve — he basically rips open his chest and bares everything, guts and all.
The movie centers around Sammy Fabelman (Gabriel LaBelle; Sammy as a child is played by the adorable Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord), the oldest sibling and only son in a house full of girls (three, to be exact). Sammy has been obsessed with movies ever since his parents took him to the theater for the first time. It was 1952’s “The Greatest Show on Earth,” and once Sammy saw the dramatic scene where a train collided with a car, he was hooked.
Begging for a train set for Hanukkah, he uses his dad’s camera to reenact the collision. A filmmaker is born.
By the time we get to Sammy’s teens, he’s doing things with a camera that wows everyone, especially his father, Burt (Paul Dana), and mother Mitzi (Michelle Williams). Burt and Mitzi look like typical post-World War II parents: He’s off at work every day and she’s the housewife keeping the family together.
But there’s a lot more going on behind the scenes and it’s Sammy, along with his camera, that uncovers the family secret that will lead to heartache and cause him to grow up very quickly.
“The Fabelmans” marks the first time Spielberg has penned a script since 2001’s “AI: Artificial Intelligence.” Teaming with longtime collaborator Tony Kushner, the two had been talking about making the director’s youth into a movie since the early 2000s, and finally went for it when the pandemic hit.
The result is a beautifully intimate examination of family and coming-of-age. And for movie lovers, there are tricks of the trade and old Hollywood references galore.
Spielberg’s youth has been well documented over the decades and mirrors Sammy’s journey. Spielberg grew up with three sisters, and their family bounced from New Jersey to Phoenix, and then to California, just as the family does in the movie. Also, like Sammy, Spielberg’s parents divorced when he was a teen and he dealt with anti-Semitic bullying.
Now you may be reading this and saying to yourself: This sounds pretentious as hell.
But that’s where Spielberg’s talents kick in. He weaves the story in a way that feels less like a person recounting his childhood, and more like telling the emotional truths of the lives of many of us. Take out the time it’s set in, and the story is extremely relatable over generations. Many of us have dealt with parents who didn’t get along, troubles at school, and trying to make our passion into a living.
It also helps that Spielberg cast phenomenal actors.
LaBelle’s performance as Sammy is amazing. A star has definitely been born in this movie. Williams also shines as Mitzi and is destined for another Oscar nomination. The Academy should also consider the work of Seth Rogen in the movie. Playing Burt’s best friend, Bennie, the performance showcases how far Rogen has come in his dramatic acting.
And then there’s the score by John William. Seeing how he’s responsible for the soundtrack of many of our lives due to Spielberg, it’s only fitting that he would also do the same for the director’s own life.
But the true stars of the movie are Spielberg and Kushner. The writing in the movie is powerful, entertaining, dramatic, and lighthearted when needed. And the direction feels as if Spielberg has spent a lifetime mapping out how to tell the story. Because he has.