The Fabelmans review: Spielberg packs his magic into telling his own story


This review of The Fables was originally published in conjunction with its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival. It has been updated and reposted for theatrical release.

At the heart of almost every Steven Spielberg movie is the ghost of a boy still saddened by his parents’ divorce, who puts his grief on paper in the huge sandbox of the movie theater. You can watch that child’s pain subconsciously drain into the squabbling mom and dad characters out Close Encounters of the Third Kind. It stems from the family dynamic of ET: the alien. And it evolves into it Catch me if you can, while Frank Abagnale takes refuge in the home of his mother’s second family. But Spielberg has never approached his own childhood as directly as in his semi-autobiographical film the fablemans, one of the best movies of 2022 so far.

The early word on Fablemans made it seem like Spielberg was out to join the trend of cinematic origin stories, this time focusing on his own personal origins. But his crowd-pleasing coming-of-age story doesn’t fit neatly into that box, or into any other box. It’s a deeply personal story that isn’t just an autobiography, a rehash of his career’s greatest hits, or a clichéd ode to filmmaking. It’s a fragile reach into its past, meant to heal a wound that still seems as tender as the day it opened decades ago, despite the bursts of comedy and measured musings on display.

Sometimes, The Fables feels more like an idealized daydream of what could have happened to him, often rubbing off the edges of the real world and the sheer anger he must have felt as the son of divorced parents. This is not a confession story. It lends the real-world figures a necessary grace, the kind people only find after coming to the other end of a life of processing. And it features a brand of craftsmanship – from deliberate blocking to controlled, ingenious camera movements – that only comes when you’re, well, Steven Spielberg. It is mainly an empathetic message from the director to his mother.

Photo: Universal Pictures

Spielberg teamed up again with Tony Kushner (his collaborator op West Side Story, Lincolnand Munich) to develop the script. Their story begins with Burt (Paul Dano, in a great performance) and Mitzi Fabelman (Michelle Williams, in a breathtaking performance) bringing along their young son Sammy (Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord in early scenes, and Gabriel LaBelle in the teen scenes). ) to the movies to see Cecil B. DeMille’s The greatest show on earth. The images coming off the screen dazzle and excite Sammy. And a fiery train wreck, which impales a car, erupts blood and explosions fill the sky, terrifies him to the point where he obsessively reenacts the scene over and over with his toy train.

To calm her son down, Mitzi lets Sammy borrow his father’s camera so he can film one of his toy train accidents to confront his fears. However, what Mitzi really does is ignite a therapeutic love of filmmaking, creating a lens that will become Sammy’s tool in trying to make sense of the world.

Sammy’s universe isn’t that complicated. Burt is a brilliant, workaholic computer engineer and Mitzi is a free-spirited, classically trained pianist. Sammy has three sisters: Reggie (Julia Butters), Natalie (Keeley Karsten), and Lisa (Sophia Kopera). The New Jersey house where they all live is the perfect breeding ground for Sammy’s imagination. In their close-knit Jewish community, they adhere to Jewish traditions, share their cultural humor and often receive visits from relatives. (This is an extremely Jewish movie.) They also hang out with Burt’s best friend and co-worker Bennie Loewy (Seth Rogen), a man who appears to be fully supportive of the couple, but whose shortcomings could one day undo the family. Building on the coercive support system the Fabelmans enjoy in their neighborhood, Spielberg and Kushner’s self-assured script reveals the cracks that formed when the family moved beyond their familiar boundaries.

Burt is ambitious and selfish. First, he uproots his family and moves them to Arizona. Then he picks up sticks and heads for Northern California. The further west the family moves, the further Sammy drifts away from his family and his roots – bringing him closer to his artistic passions. This early setup, which takes up the first hour of this 151-minute personal essay, proceeds at a slow pace, with a thesis that is initially disorienting. How much of Spielberg is in Sammy? How much of what we see is fictionalized? Why wasn’t this just mentioned The Spielbergs to save everyone the headache?

Teen Sammy Fabelman (Gabriel LaBelle) grins as he points a big movie camera at something off frame, while adults smile and cheer behind him in The Fabelmans

Photo: Universal Pictures

In one scene, Sammy and his fellow Eagle Scouts sneak into a movie. It is telling that of John Ford The man who shot Liberty Valance plays. The film, starring Jimmy Stewart and John Wayne, tells of a local senator recounting how his rise to power was fueled by a legend that he shot the famous outlaw when in fact he did not. It is a film about myth-making, reinvention and the American West as a necessary setting for creating your own identity. The Fables functions in a similar way: it’s not a beat-for-beat origin story, it’s a chance for Spielberg to reimagine the past without the heavy burden of his own name.

It also allows him to re-approach the memory of his mother. In many ways, Sammy and Mitzi are exactly the same. Burt dismisses their artistic passions as hobbies. And Mitzi, in particular, has for years put aside her creative goals in favor of her husband’s burgeoning career. In the words of Mitzi’s uncle Boris (Judd Hirsch, who absolutely crushes his one scene), she could have played anywhere for any symphony. Instead, she became a mother. Now she and Sammy are looking for a way around Burt’s quirks. But the once-close bond between mother and son is shattered when Sammy discovers a disturbing secret about Mitzi (in a sequence elegantly put together by Fablemans editors Sarah Broshar and Michael Kahn) causing him to temporarily lose his love of filmmaking.

However, make no mistake The Fables is not tough. A visual whimsy dances across the screen. Well-calibrated tracking shots and Janusz Kaminski’s dazzling cinematography set the creative bar high. References to Spielberg’s greatest hits add a tip of the veil to his own career. The scenes of Sammy first filming simple shorts and then graduating to decent size homemade war films are inviting enough to get an entire audience started making amateur films. And at Sammy’s new Los Angeles high school, he falls for a Christian girl, Monica (Chloe East), whose attempts to convert Sammy yield riotous prayers that double as euphemisms.

Bennie Loewy (Seth Rogen), Burt Fabelman (Paul Dano), and Mitzi Fabelman (Michelle Williams), frolic in front of a white hanging sheet in the background as several people turn their backs to the camera in The Fabelmans

Photo: Universal Pictures

And yet, the sense of betrayal a child feels after a divorce propels this film forward. It’s where LaBelle stars as the teen Sammy. He not only imitates Spielberg’s speaking cadence and his body language. He rises above mere artifice by portraying Sammy first as a dweeby, unathletic and stupid boy, and second as Spielberg. Nowhere is that felt more than when Sammy confronts his anti-Semitic bullies with the power of the theatrical experience. This is a movie that really loves to watch people watch movies: he loves the interior machinations, the hypnotic awe, and the revealed truths that happen when people see themselves on screen. LaBelle grounds these scenes with a sincerity that doesn’t come across as mawkish, but as euphoric and contagious.

And while LaBelle is great on his own, he discovers another level when he plays opposite a glowing Williams and a subtle-yet-powerful Dano. (The character work done here is some of his best.) Williams, as the imprisoned housewife, delivers a free-running performance that would qualify as impossibly brilliant in its rawness and liveliness, if she didn’t just pull it off. Williams perfectly articulates the feeling of a woman about to tear herself apart, until she remembers it isn’t. hair dreams or happiness that must be destroyed.

But Spielberg takes a refreshing approach by making sure he doesn’t portray Burt or Mitzi as outright villains. They are complicated people with undeniable needs that they cannot fulfill while staying together. This is Sammy understanding the ambiguity of adulthood. This is Spielberg embracing it so he can see his mother as a valid person in her own right.

Towards the end of the film – which features a cameo too hilarious for David Lynch to describe as John Ford – Sammy skips across a studio lot knowing that his troubles are behind him and his future is just ahead. The Fables is Spielberg using his vast knowledge of filmmaking to piece together a story that has his whole heart soaked across the screen. It’s a beautiful, evocative, compelling blockbuster, perfectly tuned to remind viewers of the power that can be in a movie.

The Fables opens in wide theatrical release on November 23.

The Valley Voice
The Valley Voice
Christopher Brito is a social media producer and trending writer for The Valley Voice, with a focus on sports and stories related to race and culture.


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