The Fabelmans (2022)
Directed by Steven Spielberg
There were a handful of movies about “the magic of cinema” that released in 2022—this wasn’t even the only one to have a character define “persistence of vision,” the function of the brain that turns moving pictures into non-stop motion as long as the frames move quickly enough—but none of them showed how powerful movies can be quite as sincerely as Steven Spielberg’s “The Fabelmans.” Through a mostly autobiographical lens, Spielberg created a sizzle reel of his most formative moviemaking memories to tell the story of a young Jewish boy, a family secret, and a passion whose flame could not be extinguished. And it was one of the best movies of the year.
Spielberg might have changed the names, but there’s no doubt that “The Fabelmans” is like his own diary adapted for the big screen. Sam Fabelman (Gabriel LaBelle) becomes obsessed with spectacle after seeing “The Greatest Show on Earth” on the big screen as a young boy. His idealist mother (Michelle Williams) feeds her son’s appetite for moviemaking, despite his care-free but hard-working dad’s (Paul Dano) opinion that Sam shouldn’t be spending so much money on a mere hobby. But even Dad can’t help but be impressed by his son’s unique vision behind the camera. Sam’s sisters make for willing scream queens in his movies, and his mom already loved being the center of attention. Together, the family—along with Benny (Seth Rogen), a family friend—help Sam achieve his dreams. But when Sam’s camera captures a family secret on film—one that threatens to tear this perfect unit apart—he’s torn about whether to tell anyone what he knows.
The idyllic family shown in “The Fabelmans” could have been realistic, or it might have been something like “persistence of vision” for Spielberg’s memory. Since the good memories outnumbered the bad ones, maybe his brain skipped right past the dark blips. Either way, it made me think about the power of movies to rewrite the past or simply make sense of it. Movies can show us life as dramatic as it sometimes feels. Spielberg might have viewed “The Fabelmans” as his chance to commit to film the many scenes from his life he wasn’t able to. Like what Spielberg felt when he made “Schindler’s List” in 1993—it famously made him rethink his religious convictions—I can imagine that making “The Fabelmans” might have been almost therapeutic.
James Gray’s family drama “Armageddon Time” last year introduced us to Brooks Repeta, a young actor playing a semi-autographical version of Gray. I commented on Letterboxd how it must have helped Repeta to be directed by the person he’s meant to be playing. The same can be said about Gabriel LaBelle, who had to be thrilled—and probably more than a little intimidated—to be playing a version of Steven Spielberg right in front of the legend himself. But he nailed it. He’s capable of being dramatic without being over-the-top, but it’s his humor that really impressed me. Speaking of humor, the actresses who play Sam’s three younger sisters (Julia Butters, Keeley Karsten, and Sophia Kopera) are a great collective of comedic relief. They had me cracking up. Then, there are the parents, both of whom have been treated with nominations throughout award season (though only Michelle Williams received an Oscar nomination). Williams plays Mitzi Fabelman as a theatrical eccentric with the doe-eyed, smiling face of a clown. It was a bit unsettling for a while, I’ll confess. I couldn’t understand how any person—much less a mother of five (including a toddler)—could have such youthful exuberance for life. Only later did her character need a subtler touch, and Williams—as she’s shown throughout her career—was certainly able to show that. Paul Dano tends to play characters who jive with the public image the actor presents to the world. Not that that’s a bad thing, but I find it surprising that this performance—instead of, say, the very out-of-character performance he gave in last year’s “The Batman”—would be considered an award contender.
Sam Fabelman’s eye for lining up a shot is matched by the film’s actual cinematographer, Janusz Kaminski, who’s in his thirtieth year collaborating with Spielberg. An Oscar nomination would have been his eighth, but he was snubbed. But despite his cemented status as one of the most legendary film composers of all-time, John Williams—who has been working with Spielberg for 50 years (!!!)—made no big impression on me with his score in “The Fabelmans.” For a composer as decorated as Williams, “The Fabelmans” might not even crack his Top 50 scores. However, he did receive an Academy Award nomination.
Steven Spielberg has made a deeply personal movie that feels authentic, because it is. Other movies last year failed to convince me that they were being genuine when they spouted sentimentalities about things like family, love, or the magic of movies…but with “The Fabelmans,” I couldn’t help but fall for it.