THE FABELMANS (Movie Review)

Steven Spielberg tells his life story in THE FABELMANS, a semiautobiographical memoir of how movie magic helped him to see the world — and his parents — with honesty and empathy.

***1/2 out of ****
Rated PG-13
(for some strong language, thematic elements, brief violence, and drug use)
Released: November 11, 2022 in New York and LA; November 23 wide
Runtime: 151 minutes
Directed by: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Michelle Williams, Gabriel LaBelle, Paul Dano, Seth Rogen, Judd Hirsch, Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord, Keeley Karsten, Julia Butters, Chloe East, Sam Rechner, Isabelle Kusman, Oakes Fegley, Jeannie Berlin, David Lynch

The title may be The Fabelmans, but it’s the story of The Spielbergs.

Barely fictionalized, The Fabelmans is the closest that Steven Spielberg will ever come to an autobiography. For anyone familiar with the anecdotes he’s shared about his life story over the years, The Fabelmans plays like the big screen adaptation of a book you’ve already read (including a true nugget brought to life through the inspired cameo stunt-casting of eccentric filmmaker David Lynch). 

But for those coming in fresh, The Fablemans is as sentimental as you’d expect even as it becomes far more candid than you’d likely imagine. The legendary director reveals his family’s most sordid, dysfunctional secret, yet Spielberg portrays it with the grace and mercy of a mensch.

And of course, The Fabelmans is also about how Spielberg came to fall in love with The Movies.

Yet while this mid-century family drama is deeply nostalgic (crafted early on in Normal Rockwell idealism), The Fabelmans resonates because it’s so cathartic – not just for Spielberg, but for anyone who’s still coming to grips with the flaws of their own very-human parents, how they shaped you, how they scarred you and, ultimately, how they made you.

One of the most commonly-known aspects of Spielberg’s upbringing is that he was the child of divorce. E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial was a parable of that experience, and E.T served as a metaphor of what helped to heal Spielberg’s emotional void. But here (as in real life), E.T. is a 8MM film camera.

Spielberg has confessed that, for years, he blamed his father for his parents’ breakup (so much so that the two became estranged). It was only decades later, after learning the truth of his mother’s own culpability, that Steven finally came to terms with what happened and was able to restore the relationship with his father. 

With that in mind, Spielberg uses The Fabelmans to not only relive his past but to role play it, working through the things he was ignorant of then and, by doing so, rectifying the unfair judgments he’d made and held onto for far too long.

It’s likely the most fictionalized scenes in The Fabelmans are the key ones between the teenage Sammy Fabelman (Gabriel LaBelle, in a compelling breakthrough performance as the Steven surrogate) and his mother Mitzi (Michelle Williams, whose bobbed blonde hair and bright red lipstick replicate Leah Spielberg’s distinct look). 

These heart-wrenching confrontations and tender intimacies (from which Williams’ and the movie’s inevitable Oscar clips are likely to come) seem to put Spielberg’s adult hindsight into Sammy’s present experience as he watches his parents’ marriage slowly unravel. Nevertheless, one senses that these historic rewrites aren’t simply for fairness and accuracy but, perhaps most importantly, for Spielberg’s own therapy.

Moments between father and son are poignant as well and are among the film’s most rewarding, as are the heartbreaking tensions between husband and wife. Mitzi is an artistic free spirit but is also bipolar, while Burt (Paul Dano, effectuating Steven’s dad Arnold) is a reserved, patient computer engineer intellectual. For all the sadness and grief that comes from their arc, Spielberg imbues his parents with a mutual generosity that is moving, even edifying. Williams will rightly receive awards acclaim for the showier role but Dano should as well, for the quiet strength of Burt’s sacrificial love.

While the family drama is the film’s core, The Fabelmans is also a sentimental coming-of-age story. To watch Spielberg’s love for cinema begin and then grow but now through the lens of his seasoned auteur eye, well, it’s magical. “Movies are dreams you never forget,” Mitzi tells Sammy, which makes The Fabelmans an idyllic meta reflection on Spielberg’s most formative memories. 

Indeed, those early scenes play like a dream, and in them Spielberg reveals how the language of cinema became his first coping mechanism. Then, as he grows, so do the revealing effects of cinematic language. Through his home movies, Sammy (er, Steven) sees the truth of who his parents really are, both virtues and flaws. It’s often scary and uncomfortable, but it also stirs empathy and creates a deeper connection.

The third act offers the newest revelations for Spielberg, namely the anti-Semitism he faced in high school when his family moved from Phoenix to California. This is where the influence of co-screenwriter Tony Kushner is particularly felt. The Angels In America Pulitzer-winning playwright has become Spielberg’s most trusted late-era collaborator in films such as Munich, Lincoln, and West Side Story, and his talent for psychological complexity and nuance makes for a richer examination of the bullies who harassed Steven (a hallway scene between Sammy and a WASPy jock is absolutely fascinating in what it reveals yet keeps a mystery).

Though The Fabelmans may be a therapeutic endeavor for Spielberg – whether to vent unresolved feelings or to stage mea culpas for past regrets – his transparent honesty elevates this personal excavation to something universal.

To varying degrees, we all have to work through the same issues. Spielberg shows us how to do that work with courage and charity. It’s exactly the kind of therapy that so many people could benefit from, and it’s offered at the cheapest and most entertaining hourly rate that you’ll ever find anywhere.

A son discovering who his parents are. Parents discovering who their son is. That son discovering his life’s calling even as his parents’ life together erodes because of needs (and fears) never spoken. The Fabelmans is the Spielbergs laid bare, but it’s never angst-ridden. 

Yes, the emotions are often raw, but never with bitterness or lingering anger. Spielberg isn’t deconstructing, either (an increasingly tired pseudo-intellectual tactic, especially for stories set in the past), but rather he is processing, reconciling, and forgiving. 

Through it all, the most riveting aspect of The Fabelmans is how the line between truth and fiction is so thin, and blurred. For an iconic director who has always worked in metaphor, even hiding behind movie magic, it’s a gift to see him be so direct about the things it’s taken him seventy years to confront.

The names may have changed, but The Fabelmans is anything but a fable.

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