Even with the biopic-staple formulae, familiar play of events, and non-confessional elements, Steven Spielberg’s long-time passion project The Fabelmans, based on his own life and career, easily earns a spot as one of the year’s must-see films.
While not as polished or unique as the hit films he’s carved a name for himself as a filmmaker for, the simple but effective Fabelmans is instead as ostensibly intended – wholesome, sweet, and an entertaining adaptation of the Steven Spielberg Wikipedia page. From the motivation behind his best-known films and characters, to what shaped the man’s personal and professional choices later in life, Spielberg and Tony Kushner’s script offers wonderful insight into the career and life of a celebrated filmmaker.
When Burt (Paul Dano) and Mitzi Fabelman (Michelle Williams) take young son Sammy (Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord in the early scenes) to the theater to see Cecil B.DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth, little does the boy expect to be so dazzled and taken with the magic unfolding on the screen. As soon as he arrives home, he re-enacts the fiery trainwreck scene from the film, ultimately capturing it on film – first on a traditional camera, later video camera – so he can replay it over and over forever.
What the cam has offered Sammy isn’t just a new toy to play with but a lens to view the world with, and ultimately a tool to help him deal with the difficulties he’ll soon face – particularly where it comes to his parents’ relationship.
In the lead, Gabriel La Belle, (a dead ringer for a young Spielberg) brings humanity and relatability to the teenage version of a man many see as larger than life. When the kid says he loves movies, you believe it, when the blood pumps through his veins from shooting one, you feel that enthusiasm.
While Williams is miscast, unable to bring the Chutzpah required for the difficult part, Spielberg’s sonnet to his troubled but loved mother still seeps through. Dano, again proving his versatility as one today’s most interesting young actors, fares better as the loving patriarch, and Seth Rogen will surprise in a difficult part with a likeable, against-type turn as the man that came between the Fabelmans. The scene-stealers though might just be the briefest players, Judd Hirsch as the heartbroken, somewhat eccentric uncle, and David Lynch, chomping on cigar, as a legendary filmmaker that strongly influenced Spielberg’s choice of vocation.
The Fabelmans, with a sweet-as-honey coating not dissimilar to Spielberg’s Always or The Terminal, isn’t Saving Private Ryan, Schindler’s List, Munich, or even flashy like his fantasy hits, and was never designed to be. In this case, Spielberg has intentionally crafted a simply told biopic, with a traditional structure, non-flashy look, and familiar playbook, because that’s how his upbringing was. As a character reminds us in the film, real life isn’t like the movies.