Steven Spielberg’s The Fabelmans

Gabrielle LaBelle in Steven Spielberg’s The Fabelmans (2022)

In 1999, James Lipton, the host of Inside the Actor’s Studio, put this question to Steven Spielberg: “Your father was a computer scientist. Your mother was a musician. When the spaceship lands, how do they communicate?” Spielberg smiles, the audience laughs and applauds, and everyone can suddenly hear those five tones from Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) in their inner ear. “And you see,” said Spielberg, “I’d love to say, ‘You know, I intended that, and I realized that that was my mother and father,’ but not until this moment . . .” More laughter and applause. “Thank you for that,” Spielberg added.

It was around this time that Spielberg told Stephen J. Dubner, who was profiling him for the New York Times Magazine, that he had already been toying for years with the idea of making a film about his parents, Arnold Spielberg and Leah Adler, and his three younger sisters. One of them, Anne Spielberg, who cowrote Penny Marshall’s Big (1988) with Gary Ross, had written a screenplay, I’ll Be Home. “My big fear,” her brother told Dubner, “is that my mom and dad won’t like it and will think it’s an insult and won’t share my loving yet critical point of view about what it was like to grow up with them.”

His mother passed away in 2017, and his father followed in the summer of 2020. Covid had hit, and as Spielberg explained in a Q&A following the world premiere of The Fabelmans in Toronto on Saturday, he didn’t know how bad things might get. If he was ever going to tell this story, the time had come. He got in touch with Tony Kushner, who had written the screenplays for Lincoln (2012) and West Side Story (2021)—Spielberg jokingly referred to him as his “therapist”—and the two of them got to work.

The trailer for The Fabelmans has put some people off, but there’s an army of critics out there urging you to see it when it opens in a few cities on November 11 before going wide over the Thanksgiving holidays. “Kushner has given his friend’s back story a structure to explore the messy memories and madness that make up most of our childhood and teen years, while also providing him a place to be vulnerable, personal, enraged,” writes Rolling Stone’s David Fear. “You can’t imagine one of them doing this without the other, and not just because it’s inspired by Spielberg’s real-life pain. He finally felt ready, willing, and able to go there.” The Fabelmans “feels like a significant work—maybe the significant work—from an artist who has spent decades as American cinema’s civics professor and great escapist.”

In the Los Angeles Times, Justin Chang notes that The Fabelmans is “already being hailed by many, maybe a bit presumptuously, as Spielberg’s most personal film—his Fanny and Alexander, his Amarcord. But it might be more precisely understood as a uniquely confessional work, in which a great artist freely and happily acknowledges the manipulation inherent in the art form he was born to master.”

As Mark Asch points out in Little White Lies, the film “tells you what it’s about from its very first line”—“Mommy and Daddy will be right next to you the whole time.” Little Sammy Fabelman (Mateo Zoryna Francis-Deford) is about to see his first movie, Cecil B. DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth (1952). To calm his nerves, his father, Burt (Paul Dano), breaks down the mechanics of film projection, while his mother, Mitzi (Michelle Williams), tells him that movies are like dreams. Spielberg “locates the source of the mingled childlike sense of awe, fear, and, ultimately, reassurance that shapes his Hollywood-defining stories of families traumatically separated and sometimes reunited,” writes Asch, “from Close Encounters of the Third Kind to The Color Purple to Empire of the Sun to Hook to Jurassic Park to Catch Me If You Can to War of the Worlds and on and on.”

Burt’s job has him moving the family from New Jersey to Arizona to California, and his best friend, Bennie (Seth Rogen), tags along. Teenaged Sammy (Gabrielle LaBelle) casts friends and family in his 8 mm mummy movies, World War II movies, and westerns—and, of course, he’s constantly shooting home movies. At the editing table, he discovers that in one shot, Bennie and his mother may be a little too close for his comfort.

Michelle Williams “attack[s] this part like someone who knows she’s been handed her signature role,” writes Kyle Buchanan in the New York Times. “Mitzi is a dramatic personality, prone to flights of fancy and intense mood swings, and at any given moment, she’ll laugh, cry, sing, or pack the kids into the car for an impromptu tornado chase. You love her, but she’s a lot—on this, the viewer and Sammy both agree—and Williams finds exactly the right moments to dial back the bigness and remind you that there is something private and vulnerable at the core of this very outgoing woman.”

For Sam C. Mac at In Review Online, The Fabelmans “feels emotionally raw like little else this director has made,” but the Guardian’s Benjamin Lee is left wanting more: “The trauma of depression, bullying, antisemitism, divorce, and infidelity never seems that traumatic here, made to look like they’re all part of a crisp, handsome postcard set by cinematographer Janusz Kamiński.” Writing for Cinema Scope, Will Sloan suggests that Spielberg “has earned the right to be a little self-aggrandizing: here once again, every scene is composed, lit, paced, and edited with the technical perfection that has made Spielberg almost peerless.”

At the Ringer, Adam Nayman notes that, as a budding filmmaker, Sammy “homes in on the thorny subtext of John Ford’s 1962 western The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, whose hero changes history from the shadows, stage-managing reality so skillfully that the people around him are forced to report things on his terms—to ‘print the legend,’ as it’s said in the film’s most famous line.” Toward the end of The Fabelmans, Sammy leaps at the chance to actually meet Ford. “For years,” writes Nayman, “Spielberg has sworn that every word of this surreal, profane exchange actually happened, which ultimately may be another example of printing the legend. But as the film’s brilliant, hilarious, and ultimately humble final camera movement suggests, sometimes a little reframing is necessary, even for a master. Spielberg sees things like nobody else, and it’s a pleasure to be behind those eyes.”

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