Steven Spielberg has injected a bit of his personal life into each of his films. E.T. reflected his lonely childhood while Schindler’s List saw Spielberg confront his Jewish heritage. The Fabelmans is the most autobiographical film Spielberg has ever made. The name of the titular family might be different, but the film just as easily could’ve been called The Spielbergs, exploring his upbringing and passion for cinema. It’s a masterfully acted and exquisitely shot experiment that’ll fascinate anyone who’s been following Spielberg’s career for the past 50 years. Is it among his best, though?
If they gave Oscars to casting directors, Cindy Tolan would win in a landslide for finding two actors who look exactly like a young Spielberg. Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord plays a wide-eyed Sammy Fabelman, who becomes obsessed with recreating the train wreck from The Greatest Show on Earth with his toys. Gabriel LaBelle plays a teenage Sammy, who insists that his home movies are more than a hobby. His father Burt (Paul Dano) wishes his son would pursue a more practical career path. Although not the most supportive father, The Fabelmans refreshingly doesn’t turn Burt into a closed-minded cliché who won’t budge. He’s apprehensive, but he’s not one to put foot his foot down. Even when his wife drives the children into a tornado, he doesn’t raise his voice.
Sammy receives more support from his free-spirited mother, played by Michelle Williams in an angelic performance sure to score an Oscar nomination. Seth Rogen turns in some of his best dramatic work as Sammy’s fun surrogate uncle. Judd Hirsch makes the most of his extended cameo as Sammy’s eccentric great-uncle. While the film is entitled The Fabelmans, it’s mainly about Sammy’s relationship with his parents. His three sisters are virtually interchangeable, although Julia Butters from Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is given one scene to shine. Sammy’s sisters ask him if he’s ever going to make a movie with more roles for girls. This could be Spielberg commentating on his filmography, The Sugarland Express, The Color Purple, and The BFG being his only movies with female protagonists.
The screenplay by Spielberg and Tony Kushner plays like a series of memories, which is emphasized by Janusz Kamiński’s dreamy cinematography. For all the whimsical episodes, including one involving a pet monkey, Spielberg doesn’t shy away from the most difficult chapters of his youth, including anti-Semitic school bullies. When the girlfriend of one bully stands up for Sammy, a romance seems inevitable. In an inspired twist, Sammy instead hooks up with her super-Christian friend Monica, hilariously played by Chloe East. It’s not a romance for the ages, but it’s not supposed to be. It’s a charming portrait of young love that’s designed to run its course. Sammy’s final encounter with one bully also takes an inspired turn with the film’s most meta moment.
The Fabelmans is a wonderful film, but it falls short of being top-tier Spielberg. That might be because only part of Spielberg’s story has been told. The film ends with an unforgettable exchange between Sammy and a legendary director played by another legendary director. It feels like there are more stories to explore, however. Maybe down the line, Spielberg could revisit these characters in a sequel touching upon his early Hollywood days, marriages, and fatherhood. Whether this is the first part of Sammy’s story or a standalone entity, The Fabelmans is a hard film not to like. It’s a film you want to love, though. The Fabelmans may fall short of that threshold, but it comes close.