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The Fabelmans: The Capstone to Spielberg’s Illustrious Career


The Fabelmans preview screening provided by StudioCanal

The Fabelmans charts Steven Spielberg’s formative years with a level of introspection and finesse that has characterised his career in the 50 odd years since”

One cold, winters night in 1952 New Jersey, Sammy Fabelman (played by in child-form by Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord, and teenage/young adult form by Gabriel LaBelle), is taken to his first motion picture experience by his parents Burt (Paul Dano) and Mitzi (Michelle Williams). The film in question is The Greatest Show on Earth, but little does he know that his whole world and perspective is about to be shaped by the ensuing two and a half hours at the cinema.

The only person that does know is Steven Spielberg, whose self-reflexive, semi-fictionalised, The Fabelmans, charts the celebrated Director’s formative years with a level of introspection and finesse that has characterised his career in the 50 odd years since. After all, who doesn’t remember their first time at the movies? The first time you were exposed to a motion picture on the big screen and the possibilities of the cinematic medium. For me, my parents took me to see Finding Nemo (2003) which no doubt shaped my adulation for the medium and what it could achieve.

For Sammy (a semi-fictionalised Spielberg) and Spielberg, that exposure was even more profound. This is ultimately Spielberg’s visual diary, one that at once examines the very youthful promise of endless possibility —with the only limitations being your imagination (as symbolised by the camera)—, and the navigation of expectation, of the un-imaginary and the tangible (the reality that hits when the record button is turned off).

As transformative as that experience was for Sammy, his father writes it off as a phase, one that he’s willing to indulge but one that’s not going to put food on the table and is at best a hobby. The Fabelmans themselves are the embodiment of an idyllic nuclear family: middle-class, a father that works hard to provide, a mother that does what’s seen as expected of her at the time, and children that are well raised and full of life. They’re the epitome of the American Dream, but Sammy has other dreams.

The first of which starts with an attempt to recreate the train-crashing sequence from The Greatest Show on Earth on his father’s camera. This is one of the many points of repurposing in the film, as though Sammy is attempting to use film as a gateway to escape and reimagine reality on his own terms. In this way, The Fabelmans isn’t a generic re-telling of Spielberg’s life (most of which wouldn’t come as a surprise to those familiar with his past). Instead, the film occupies a middle-ground that is best understood through Sammy’s tussle with self-expression (art) and the difficulties of growing up.

(from left) Paul Dano, Mateo Zoryan, and Michelle Williams in The Fabelmans, 2022.

(from left) Paul Dano, Mateo Zoryan, and Michelle Williams in The Fabelmans, 2022.

The cinema ultimately represents Sammy’s attempt to bridge together fiction and reality, and therefore make sense of both worlds by not viewing them as mutually exclusive. Sammy’s understanding of his family dynamic becomes clearer the longer he stares into, and cobbles together, the footage he has shot. In the film’s most telling and moving sequence, he reassembles footage from a camping trip his family took, to remove the very real truth that not all is glitz and glamour as his parents have made it out to be — namely in the form of Mitzi’s growing estrangement from Burt, and keen eye for Benny (Burt’s co-worker and friend, that his children have branded “uncle”, Seth Rogen).

It’s difficult to gauge just how factual some of the events in the film are; the Sammy/Mitzi moments feel much more specific and precise than say some later scenes involving a bullying subplot as the Fabelmans jump from state to state, and Sammy from school to school. Mitzi also feels like the most realised character beyond Sammy, with Williams’ performance seeing her at her most vulnerable and subsequently, her most captivating (which is saying something, given her brilliance across roles).

She and LaBelle have eye-watering chemistry that allows Spielberg to really hit home those tender moments of mother/son bonding, and the complication of their situation as truths surface. Dano, on the other hand, is much more detached here as he plays Burt with a brewing subtlety that is reminiscent of his performance in There Will Be Blood (2007), minus the explosiveness. Make no mistake, he nails the ‘disengaged father trying to build a future for his family’ archetype, but the secret sauce of the film oozes from Williams and LaBelle.

It’s clear that Spielberg and co-writer and frequent collaborator, Tony Kushner, have dug into the nitty gritty of the directors life. There is a level of verisimilitude coursing through the film whether it be in the performances, the very raw and grounded screenplay that avoids glossiness, or John Williams’ moving score — the duo have cashed in all of the chips Spielberg has accrued and pulled no stops. That, of course, doesn’t mean that this film is simply a rehashing of the Director’s life nor is it a final sign off, but instead it can be viewed as a sum of all the parts that have informed Spielberg’s life up until now, that are brought together and teased out to keep you guessing.

Even still, The Fabelmans paints an interesting portrait of self-actualisation, of finding your place in the world and pursuing what you love even if it means confronting hard truths in the process. If Steven Spielberg hasn’t already cemented his status as arguably the greatest —and most commercially successful— Director of all time, The Fabelmans is his way of at least saying the Director is only as good as the story behind them.

The Fabelmans opens nationally from the 5th of January, 2023.


Arnel Duracak

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