The Fabelmans is a semi-autobiographical film about the early life and career of Steven Spielberg. Sammy Fabelman (Gabriel LaBelle) stands in for a young Steven Spielberg because naming the main character of a movie that you produced, directed, and wrote about yourself…after yourself…would have been too obvious. Clever artifices like this are why Spielberg has been getting paid the big bucks for the last 50 years! Jokes aside, the promotion of the movie does make the project ostensibly feel like an exercise in self-aggrandizement, but if you can get past that you’ll see that The Fabelmans is a really good movie in its own right.
The Fabelmans is one of the best technical movies of 2022. The set designs are immaculate. Spielberg gives you pristine retro modern furniture, appropriately ugly wood paneling, anachronistic 8mm film, and tube televisions galore. The main streets are lined with big-bodied, gas-guzzling Oldsmobiles and local neighborhoods feel normatively suburban. The costumes are equally impressive. Sammy’s Father (Paul Dano) spent the entire movie dressed like he was either going to or coming from a business meeting a la every patriarch from the era. Everybody else was either wearing high-waisted pants that were too short at the ankles or uncomfortable-looking plaid dresses. This film’s only rival in terms of stylistic commitment to this specific period would be John Waters’ Hairspray (1988). I say all that to say that Steven Spielberg knows how to make a movie and The Fabelmans puts his talent on full display.
The movie puts that talent on display in a way that almost feels arrogant, but Spielberg is careful to show a bit of humility by making the film about people other than him. Sammy’s Mother (Michelle Williams) brilliantly shines throughout the film as an archetypal American mother trapped in her role: She is (interchangeably) a wife first, a mother second, but (definitively) herself last. That plight withstanding, she is loving. She is supportive. And she is the glue that holds Sammy’s family together. But she is also struggling to find happiness because of the pressure that is constantly on her to be everything to everyone, and I think that this is a scenario when can all relate to or at least appreciate in some way.
Other characters like Benny (Seth Rogan) and Chad (Sam Rechner) elicit quite a bit of pathos as well. Rechner is a bit cliché in his role as the film’s overcompensating bully, but his work onscreen with LaBelle works well for what Spielberg is trying to accomplish with the two of them. Seth Rogan, however, steals every scene that he’s in by being the fun “uncle” with an infectiously positive personality. He makes himself invaluable to the film with his performance. It was refreshing to see him in a role where he could play to his strengths without having to be over-the-top goofy. Sammy’s sisters don’t get a ton of the spotlight in the film, but they contribute duly to the overall objective of the film.
And the overall objective of the film is to give viewers insight into the life of one of the greatest filmmakers the world has ever known and how his relationships with people influenced his craft, and you have to be willing to buy into that before you see it. Be aware that this isn’t a documentary exalting his achievements. It’s not a biopic that makes him look particularly sexy. It’s not even really a movie about Steven Spielberg. It’s a film that tries to explore the difficulty of balancing your relationships with your goals in life. There were times when I actually got pretty emotional because the movie effectively captures the struggle that some of us have connecting and staying connected with people we care about and still managing to fulfill our obligations to our society or our jobs. It’s a metanarrative movie about real life that I think hits home for a lot of people.
The Fablemans is available to stream on Apple TV+ and Amazon Prime.