‘The Fabelmans’- Film Review: One of Steven Spielberg’s Very Best in Years

After showing the world he can put on a musical with last year’s fantastic adaptation of West Side Story, anything that comes next from the hands of Steven Spielberg will be worth remembering. And it’s been quite a trend in Hollywood to see films from directors that count as semi-autobiographical pictures, showing audiences what made them the filmmakers they are today. We’ve experienced it with Roma from Alfonso Cuarón, the underappreciated Belfast from Kenneth Branagh, and most recently with disappointing results with Empire of Light from Sam Mendes. For an Oscar-winning director responsible for five decades of all-time greats in cinema, The Fabelmans is an excellent excuse to show what made him want to pursue an aspiring dream with a personal story to connect to us all.

As a young boy in 1952 in New Jersey, six-year-old Sammy Fabelman (Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord) is about to experience his first trip to the movie theater with his parents, Burt (Paul Dano) and Mitzi (Michelle Williams). That film was Cecil B. DeMille’s Oscar-winning epic, The Greatest Show on Earth. Nervous at first, it’s an experience that’ll remand unforgettable, especially after being stunned by the film’s train crash sequence, as he tries to recreate it with his model train set, with cars gifted to him for the eight days of Hanukkah. He perfectly captured it with a movie camera his mother bought for him. Then, as he grew older, living in Phoenix, Arizona, Sammy (Gabriel Labelle)’s love for filmmaking grew stronger in making westerns and WWII movies with his sisters and friends. After a tragedy hit the family, something happened that Sam stumbles upon that could ripple his life and his love of film.

The Fabelmans was hands down one of my most anticipated films during this current awards season, and it’s solely because no filmmaker has expressed my love for cinema more than Spielberg. Having a filmography that spans half a century from different genres, he’s always able to capture unique scales, unlike anything I’ve seen before from blockbusters. When his latest is all about him growing up as a teenager, that’s perfectly easy enough to see it ASAP, especially when the trailer hit me with the emotions. Winning the People’s Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival, which I clearly wasn’t envious of those who saw it first there. It was the film that had to be seen to believe, but it’s confusing why Universal Pictures had a little more comprehensive release date, only playing in four theaters around me with no Tuesday night showings. Despite feeling as if I was the last film nerd to see this, if you need something to capture the feels and get a huge amount of joy through to lens of a genius, look no forward than one of the year’s best.

Since A.I. Artificial Intelligence, this is the first screenplay credit the director had his hand in writing the script, along with Tony Kushner, and it offers everyone a glimpse into his upbringing with the challenges that became a part of his Jewish upbringing and the journey of becoming an aspiring filmmaker, which makes sense for him to take part of the story. Much quieter on the same level as one of his other dramas that aren’t as loud to sit through, he still captures his usual sense of magic in a reality that probably wasn’t as clean cut as it was back then. The deep knowledge I had of him wasn’t a lot, and most it came from the HBO documentary that aired a few years ago. The part with the monkey in the house was actual. And seeing aspects of his life inspired how most of his films, making The Fabelmans had to be challenging when he retold parts of his memories with his family shortly after his parents passed away. 

We don’t see everything in his life that led to his big break with directing Jaws, but what it does shows how visionary he was when directing 8mm short films with his Boy Scout friends (including Escape to Nowhere) that doesn’t need to have dialogue. Those scenes were exciting to watch, especially the cool editing techniques of how Sammy’s able to create the look of guns firing in the final product. Anybody who grew up living a unique life will easily resonate with what Spielberg and Kushner crafted about all fascinations of life. As a result, I’ve always longed for movies and just talking about them, whether they inspired me from a great impression of a certain moviegoing takeaway or finding an understanding of how a simple plot translates to screen.

Our passions drive us to who we are, even if it comes later in life. Truthfully, talking about movies and writing about them have kinda dwindled this past year. What’s the point when nobody gives them attention to the point of quitting? After sitting through this, you’ll believe the power of cinema again that made me appreciate the ones that impacted me. Even when it can be a sanitized retelling, that doesn’t take away from the effort putting this together. Instead, it takes time to sit with the characters, making us laugh with well-timed humor and genuinely emotional moments that had me in tears.

If we’re looking at another breakout performance, we all hope to remember by the end of the year, give it up for Gabriel LaBelle, who plays the teenage Sammy for the rest of the film. For a fictional stand-in for Spielberg, the 20-year-old Canadian-American actor was nothing short of amazing. I didn’t know if he would be anyone special when acting opposite big stars, and he was utterly believable as a young Spielberg. I hope we see more of him when he receives more praise for his role. Besides him, everybody will not get Michelle Williams out of their heads after giving another terrific performance that’s given her great material to work off of. Her performance as the free-spirited artist won’t be to everyone’s taste due to being a more showy role out of everybody. Still, you can’t blame her for brightening the scenes since her character believes in her only son’s dreams while dealing with some questionable behavior underneath the surface when she also aspires to become a concert pianist. I’m not sure why the studio’s pushing for her to be nominated for Best Actress rather than Supporting. Just from the trailer, I thought this would finally be her chance to win an Oscar, but those chances go elsewhere. 

Paul Dano gives a performance that’s quite the opposite of his villainous turn earlier this year in The Batman as Sammy’s complicated father, Burt, a computer engineer whose success at his career causes his family to move around while growing up. Seth Rogen plays Burt’s best friend and uncle-like figure to the kids’ Bennie Loewy. While he doesn’t have a lot of screen time after the second act, his performance shows he can provide some pleasant comedic moments in a drama, reminding me why he was great in Steve Jobs. And there’s also a small appearance from Judd Hirsch as Mitzi’s great-uncle Boris. He’s only in it for about 10 minutes of screen time, but what a good use of his time to make a good impact when he gives a speech to Sammy about art and family.

Of course, no Spielberg film isn’t complete without his usual suspects of frequent collaborators. Like always, cinematographer Janusz Kamiński makes the film look stunning through nearly every shot. And while John William’s score wasn’t as bombastic as some of the iconic music he provided in Spielberg’s other films, but he delivered an excellent sound to the story. And this is the last film he’ll compose with the director; what a way to go out on a high note.

For a film that’s 151 minutes, that kind of runtime should’ve bothered me since there’s no point in so many movies this year alone being that long. But to my surprise, it didn’t feel slow; it was pretty well-paced, and I didn’t notice it until probably the last 20 minutes. Now, did it need to be that long? I wouldn’t say so when it 130 would’ve done just fine. Though if there was one thing I wanted to improve upon with the narrative, I could’ve used more time knowing more about Sammy’s sisters, mainly when this includes Reggie (Julia Butters). Those are minor problems in what’s basically a touching drama to be adored by film fans everywhere. This also has one of my favorite final shots of the year.

As for its Oscar chance, there’s no doubt this will be a strong contender, and that’s not just because Spielberg’s name is attached. If I had to pick which could be a frontrunner to win Best Picture, maybe this has a chance. After Spielberg was robbed of winning for Saving Private Ryan and it’s been nearly 30 years since one of his films won (Schindler’s List), nothing would make me happier than to see something this crowd-pleasing take it home. When you think it might’ve been a sign of retirement, the recent news of his doing a remake or continuation of Bullitt with Bradley Cooper doesn’t show signs of him slowing down soon. 

The Fabelmans is living proof Steven Spielberg hasn’t lost his touch as a filmmaker. What a heartwarming coming-of-age story that’s a love letter to cinema and family filled with lots of warmth. From its performances (LaBelle and Williams in particular), script, and the driving passion for what makes us feel alive, you better believe he crafted something truly remarkable right until an unforgettable final shot. Truly one of his best films in ages, ranking higher than I had ever imagined. It just goes to show he’s capable of making one of my favorites from this year that didn’t leave me disappointed. 

Grade: [A-]

The Fabelmans is now playing in theaters nationwide| Runtime: 151 Minutes| Rated PG-13 for some strong language, thematic elements, brief violence and drug use| Studio: Universal Pictures.

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