Starring Gabriel LaBelle, Paul Dano, Michelle Williams, Judd Hirsch, Seth Rogen, Julia Butters, Keeley Karsten, Sophia Kopera, Jeannie Berlin, Robin Bartlett, Sam Rechner, Oakes Fegley, Chloe East
Written by Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Produced by Kristie Macosko Krieger, Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner
Cinematography by Janusz Kaminski
Edited by Michael Kahn and Sarah Broshar
Music by John Williams
By Matt Neufeld
Nov. 23, 2022
“The Fabelmans,” Steven Spielberg’s endearing, emotional, insightful, moving and overwhelmingly entertaining coming-of-age drama about Spielberg’s early life as a youth and aspiring filmmaker while growing up in New Jersey, Arizona and California during the 1950s and 1960s, is, simply and easily, the best movie of the year. It’s just amazing–not surprising or unexpected, of course–but just amazing that Spielberg, who directed, co-wrote and co-produced this instantly-classic film, continually makes not only consistently excellent films, but he continually makes films that are also consistently among the best films of their respective years.
This wonderfully intelligent and perspective film, “The Fabelmans,” is, like with all smart and truly introspective films, about a host of important issues: chasing, pursuing and catching your dreams in life; growing up and coming of age and all of the concurrent hubris that goes along with that; growing up in a somewhat fractured and troubled, but still loving and caring, family; learning the truth, however painful, about your parents and who they really are as human beings; the utter stupidity, ignorance and idiocy of anti-Semitism, bigotry and prejudice; the wonders, joys and pleasures of filmmaking, the arts and the process of creating art; the inherent value of the artistic process as a valuable part of life; and, really, nothing less than the ups and downs and quirks and varying rollercoaster basic aspects of relationships, family, love and life itself.
“The Fabelmans” excels at all filmic levels, with stellar, masterful direction from Spielberg that is full of classic Spielbergian positive, uplifting magic and wonder while still being grounded in the core, over-arching reality and drama that form the foundation of the film and story; a smart, knowing and clever script and accompanying dialogue from writers Spielberg and Tony Kushner that manages to be dramatic, comedic, funny, insightful, perceptive and personal while still maintaining the proper and appropriate filmic tone and balance; stellar, award-worthy, truly impressive acting from every lead and supporting actor; superb period production design and art and set design that seamlessly evokes the film’s varying times and places; beautiful and original cinematography and camera styling from the master cameraman Janusz Kaminski, who, like Spielberg, always delivers the very best; smart editing from masters Michael Kahn and Sarah Broshar that keeps the film moving and captivating at just the right timing, pacing and thematic levels; and, of course, an absolutely beautiful, memorable musical score from another master amid a cast and crew of masters, the maestro John Williams.
One would expect nothing less from this cast and crew than what is, again, the best film of 2022–a point worthy of noting a second time. The lesson here is that everyone–folks of all ages and backgrounds–should go see this movie. Few movies, in general, these days resonate on such varying, multi-layered thematic, moralistic and entertaining levels in a way that appeals to people of all types–that includes comic book superhero movies–so to welcome a great movie such as “The Fabelmans” that achieves this goal is a cause for celebration.
“The Fabelmans” tells the autobiographical tale of Spielberg’s early life through the eyes of the fictionalized lead character Sammy Fabelman, who’s based on Spielberg himself. The film starts by introducing us to Sammy as a little kid in 1952 who’s seeing his first movie, Cecil B. DeMille’s classic 1952 epic “The Greatest Show on Earth.” Instantly, this moviegoing moment sparks the start of the wonder and joy of Sammy’s lifelong love of movies, and, additionally, the concurrent wonder and joy of “The Fabelmans” movie starts immediately, as little Sammy is instantly wonderstruck, thunderstruck, mesmerized and captivated by DeMille’s big-top circus of a true tentpole movie. The opening scenes of Sammy watching this movie wide-eyed and open-mouthed up on the big screen and being struck by the lightning bolt of filmic wonder, magic, creativity and artistry–not to mention DeMilleian epicness–wonderfully establishes the joyful tone and atmosphere of the rest of the “Fabelmans” movie that follows.
Sammy is so awestruck by the movie and by one memorable scene in particular–the train wreck and derailment, which was pretty powerful for 1952 for its believable execution–that Sammy, once home, wants only to film a similar scene with his new Hannukah gift–a model train set and track! And that’s exactly what he does! Using his 8mm camera, Sammy films a train wreck on his model train track that, well, essentially starts the career of one of the literally greatest film directors of all time. And, apparently, that’s exactly what Spielberg did in real life!
From there, it’s no looking back for Sammy. As a young kid and as a teenager, Sammy is enthralled and directly focused on and with moviemaking. Using 8mm and 16mm cameras and manual editing and splicing machines–that was the height of hobby home filmmaking technology at the time–Sammy writes, directs, edits, scores and produces a series of home movies that not only display an inherent, natural, magical gift for true filmmaking talent, but also captures his somewhat troubled and difficult family life in increasingly suburban New Jersey, Arizona and California of the post-war, Cold War and burgeoning Baby Boomer years of the fifties and sixties.
While Sammy pursues his increasingly serious hobby of filmmaking as he enters his teen years, his seemingly Rockwellian, comfortable, upward-mobility family life with his intelligent, successful, caring and loving parents and his three equally loving sisters, alas, starts to fracture. It seems that beneath that post-war Eisenhower/Kennedy plastic, form-fitting surface veneer of rosy family life and ’50s wonderfulness, well, all was not exactly wonderful with the Fabelman/Spielberg families. As Sammy would soon discover, well, it’s not really a spoiler, so nothing’s being spoiled here, his loving mom Mitzi, who’s based on Spielberg’s mom Leah Adler, a concert pianist, was more than just friends with dad Burt’s best friend Bennie. As Mitzi falls further in love with Bennie and falls further away from Burt, who’s based on Spielberg’s pioneering computer engineering dad Arnold Spielberg, the once-peaceful Fabelman family starts to fall apart. And it’s never pleasant when parents start to drift toward separation and divorce with a household full of bright, loving, caring kids.
As Sammy pursues filmmaking and as he deals with his parents’ marital troubles through family moves from New Jersey to Phoenix to California through the fifties and early sixties, moves that are prompted by his father’s increasingly prominent career promotions as he becomes increasingly successful as an early computer pioneer–which Arnold Spielberg really was, in real life–Sammy also concurrently has to deal with the natural, expected hormonal, coming-of-age and growing-pains craziness of the teenage years.
Thus, Spielberg and Kushner seamlessly, easily introduce a third act that takes us through Sammy’s turbulent teenage years in sunny suburban sanitized sixties California. There, Sammy faces a horde–a coven, really–of ignorant, hateful and just flat-out stupid anti-Jewish bigoted morons at Sammy and his older sisters’ new high school. The hatred, ignorance and stupidity of the anti-Semites is appalling and disturbing, of course–but not surprising, as, crazily, insane anti-Semitism still pervaded post-war United States life in the fifties and beyond, right up until today. Which is psycho, when you think about it, considering the United States led the war to defeat Nazi Germany and liberate the Nazis’ concentration death camps that murdered 6 million innocent Jewish people. But, as Sammy learns and as the film smartly shows, anti-Semitism and any and every type of bigotry, prejudice and irrational hatred have never made any sense and never will make any sense.
However, Sammy stays his course, holds his own defense and honor, and, through his natural intelligence, diplomatic skills and his above-average filmmaking skills, overcomes the bigots, teaches them some life lessons of their own–and even gets a nice, devoted, beautiful and wonderfully attractive–in looks and personality–Catholic girlfriend! These scenes of teenage life represent some of the most realistic, real-life-oriented representations of teenage life in the movies in ages. And that’s even with Spielberg’s and Kushner’s attendant moments of intertwining comedy and drama. The scenes of early flirtation and first kisses between Sammy and his first girlfriend, Monica Sherwood, are absolutely hilarious–and touching and endearing.
Eventually, Mitzi and Burt separate, the once close-knit Fabelman family separates as Mitzi moves away with the sisters, as Burt and Sammy stay in California, and as Sammy eventually enters his collegiate years to further pursue his ambition to be a professional filmmaker.
Through all of this, not only does Spielberg, Kushner and his cast and crew present a wonderfully, consistently intelligent, perceptive, clever and entertaining coming-of-age, family drama, pursuing-dreams and exploration-of-life story and movie, every moment is infused with thought-provoking themes, morals, messages and points that will not only make the viewer think, but will also make the viewer dig a little deeper into their own life and think about some of the life lessons presented in “The Fabelmans.” Like any good, smart, insightful movie, “The Fabelmans” leaves you entertained, but also leaves you informed, refreshed, educated, uplifted and inspired, too. And that’s nothing but a good thing.
And everything is helped along in it’s believability and relatability because, well, the Fabelmans story is basically, essentially, the Spielbergs story. Steven Spielberg really did start making 8mm and 16mm films as a kid and teenager. Leah Adler and Arnold Spielberg did split up. Leah was in love with Arnold’s best friend. Spielberg did have three sisters. Arnold Spielberg was indeed an early pioneer, inventor and groundbreaking computer and electrical engineer. Steven did face stupid anti-Semitism in California. Spielberg did overcome his rivals, and of course he fortunately did succeed as a filmmaker and as someone who did indeed fulfill his lifelong, childhood dreams. That’s all true, and that basic truism infuses “The Fabelmans,” grounding and inspiring the movie in it’s overall excellence.
As always, Spielberg has come through in an above-average manner with his exceptional, talented cast–all of whom, as noted, shine throughout the film.
Young actor Gabriel LaBelle is a literal discovery as Sammy, and he carries this movie with an understated levelheadedness and inner calm that never overwhelms or overtakes the character of Sammy. Sammy is real, he’s believable, he’s sympathetic, he’s relatable, he’s lovable, and he’s at once down-home in terms of his smartness and diplomatic skills and larger-than-life in terms of his natural-born, inherent talent, creativity and imagination. LaBelle finds just the right balance in his performance to keep Sammy real, not mythical, but still impressive. LaBelle is outstanding. Look for this movie to boost his career immediately.
Paul Dano is equally understated, relatable, likeable and sympathetic as Burt. You truly feel for Burt as Mitzi cannot, and will not, let Bennie go, and as she does let Burt go. Dano is wonderful as Arnold, and he, too, finds the right balance to keep Burt real, relatable and intelligent. It’s an impressively understated performance.
And Michelle Williams–not to overstate the case–is a revelation, a whirlwind, a complete wonder as Mitzi, the most complex character in the film. Mitzi is, like anyone in life with complicated, conflicting and multi-layered feelings, emotions and loves, constantly confused and distressed at what’s happening to her. She has this wonderful husband, these wonderful four kids, the family has all that they need and want in life materialistically–but, alas, she is in love with her husband’s best friend. Williams delivers a standout, bravuro performance that bravely, wondrously captures the stressful life of someone dealing with such deep and distressing feelings. Williams delivers performances in several scenes that are just mesmerizing.
Seth Rogen is–to his credit–absolutely nothing like he has been in most of his comic performances in previous movies, and he is simply a real person, too, in the movie. He is straightforward, dramatic and understated, too. Bennie, also, is conflicted and troubled–he is Burt’s best friend, but he also happens to be in love with Mitzi–his best friend’s wife. Rogen’s Bennie, too, is a sympathetic character, despite his awkward place in the story.
Julia Butters, Keeley Karsten and Sophia Kopera shine in supporting roles as Sammy’s sisters, Reggie, Natalie and Lisa. They are based on Spielberg’s real-life sisters Anne, Nancy and Sue. (Fun fact for those in the D.C. area: Sue lives in Montgomery County, Maryland!). Spielberg consulted with his sisters on the making of “The Fabelmans”–yet another factor that contributes to the authenticity of the movie’s storytelling. Additionally, Steven Spielberg had the blessings of his parents to tell the family story, too. Not only that–Spielberg’s parents actually wanted their son to tell the story, according to some media reports.
Young actress Chloe East, like Williams, brings something absolutely original and inventive to her portrayal as the crazily lovable high school sweetheart Monica. She delivers a wonderfully inspiring mix of high school crush, religious fanatic, high school princess and entirely lovable first love. The youthful energy that East brings to Monica is equally hilarious and endearing. East is just a firestorm of youthful energy.
And then there’s Judd Hirsch as Uncle Boris, Sammy’s circus performer uncle inspired by Steven Spielberg’s real-life uncle of the same name. In one scene, in one wondrous moment of just a few mesmerizing movie minutes, Hirsch deftly, smartly, creatively, inspirationally–and flat-out amazingly–nearly steals the entire film straight out from everyone else with a stand-out, show-stopping, bravuro performance. As noted, in just a few minutes in just one scene, Hirsch delivers a beautifully-written, beautifully-performed performance that sums up, well, just about everything, everywhere, all at once. The scene takes place one night, late at night, while Uncle Boris is visiting the Fabelman family, in Sammy’s room, as he and Sammy have a deep, analytical talk about Sammy’s life and dreams.
Uncle Boris delivers a life message that resonates as one of those amazingly insightful talks that stay with people in their hearts and minds for their entire life. And, appropriately, Hirsch’s performance will have the same affect. Hirsch himself, in one media interview, said he viewed Uncle Boris as a type of oracle, in a sense, and Hirsch is exactly right. Uncle Boris appears as a type of oracle in the movie and in Sammy’s life, and he is a type of oracle in real life and in Steven Spielberg’s life. Kudos and congrats galore for Judd Hirsch for a most memorable, show-stopping performance as a type of oracle who everyone needs in their life, Uncle Boris.
Fortunately for all of us, we have another type of oracle in our lives, the master filmmaker Steven Spielberg, who continues to deliver at the same consistently excellent level he’s always delivered, ever since his first film, the television film “Duel,” from 1971–that’s fifty-one years ago. That’s more than half a century of consistently excellent filmmaking from Spielberg, and thankfully he’s finally delivered to theaters this latest story, “The Fabelmans,” one of his most personal stories, but also simply a wholly excellent, intelligent, beautiful and entertaining story in its own right.
So when we all gather around our respective dinner tables and give thanks this Thanksgiving of 2022, please take a moment and give a filmic thanks that we have a new, excellent Steven Spielberg movie, “The Fabelmans,” playing at the local movie theater, and that movie just happens to be, in case you haven’t heard, the best movie of the year.