A half-century into his storied career, Steven Spielberg proves he still has the ability to surprise by offering us an intimate and cautiously revealing semi-autobiography. The resulting motion picture is as fun to analyze as it is to watch.
Cowriting the screenplay with Tony Kushner, Spielberg rechristens his own family the Fabelmans, with budding young artist Steven here called Sammy, played as a tot by Mateo Zoryan Francis-DeFord and as a teen by the uncannily Spielberg-like Gabriel Labelle.
Although the film follows two main narratives – the rising arc of Sammy's development as a filmmaker and the descending arc of his parents' (Paul Dano and Michelle Williams) marriage – The Fabelmans is far more slice-of-life than plotty, unfolding in four separate segments: little Sammy's 1952 childhood in New Jersey, where a train crash in Cecil B. DeMille's The Greatest Show on Earth ignites his interest in cinema; adolescent Sammy making home movies with his Boy Scout buddies in Phoenix, AZ; "Sam's" turbulent 1963-1964 in a Saratoga, CA high school (the city is not name-checked, but that's where Spielberg spent his senior year); and finally an amusing epilogue as Sam starts knocking on doors in Hollywood.
As you might expect, much of The Fabelmans is about the transformative power of the movies, Spielberg's greatest love. But while the film has a few feel-good moments, the director and his cowriter also take time to explore the emotionally manipulative side of this art form: socially awkward Sammy makes films not only because the process is challenging and enjoyable but because they're the best way he can get a reaction out of someone.
As a Silicon Valleyite myself, I've long known about Spielberg's year in Saratoga – first with pride, then with embarrassment, when he eventually explained that it was a time filled with bullying and antisemitism. That this one year takes up such a large chunk of The Fabelmans suggests either that it was the only truly tough period in Spielberg's charmed life and thus the best source for dramatic conflict, or that despite his incredible success as an adult, he still hasn't gotten over his 18th year. Both things can be true, of course.
This amount of self-examination would be insufferable from a lesser filmmaker. But this is Steven Freaking Spielberg we're talking about, one of the most important directors in history. So when he says, "Hey guys, I made a movie about my formative years," we'd be foolish to dismiss it as mere narcissism.
Unsurprisingly, cast and crew are firing on all cylinders, but aside from Spielberg himself, The Fabelmans' two standouts are Labelle in a warm performance and of course Williams, whose ability to convey vast emotional complexities within the slightest adjustment of a facial expression is breathtaking.