Review: The Fabelmans

I’ve had this film circled on my to-do list for a while as per my last round of Oscar predictions I believe its the current front runner for Best Picture at the Academy Awards. I love me some Spielberg and seeing him dial it back with a more personal story felt like it would be a nice change of pace and unlike anything we’ve seen from him before. That expectation was fully met as no film in his extensive arsenal can quite compare to this grounded, coming-of-age drama. For a guy whose made a career out giant blockbusters like Jaws, Jurassic Park, and Saving Private Ryan it was refreshing to see him deliver something so personal and almost get back to basics.

The Fabelmans is a semi-autobiographical film based on Steven Spielberg’s childhood as told through the eyes of Sam Fabelman (Gabriel LaBelle/Mateo Zoryan), the eldest child in a Jewish family led by his eccentric and unpredictable mother, Mitzi (Michelle Williams), his by-the-book yet well-meaning father, Burt (Paul Dano), and his three sisters. After seeing his first film in a theater, young Sam becomes obsessed with movies and filmmaking. As his family bounces around the country for his father’s work, with his friend Benny (Seth Rogen) in tow, Sam continues to master his craft, creating a series of home movies with his friends and siblings. As he grows up he begins to notice the glaring flaws in his parents and their lives though this drives him further into his art.

The film is essentially broken into three major acts based on the location of the Fabelmans. The first act opens with them living in New Jersey and is where Sam finds his passion for movies. The second takes them to Arizona where Sam spends the majority of his childhood and we see him truly begin to master his craft. The third focuses on their time in California when Sam encounters anti-Semitic bullies at his new school and his family’s inner conflicts reach a boiling point. The structure of the film works well, with each time and location telling a different, albeit connected, story and watching the arc of Sam is something to behold. To me, the Arizona storyline sticks out the most, not just because it takes up the most time, but seeing Sam shoot his movies with friends and family is enough to make any film nerd smile ear-to-ear. The California scenes have their ups and downs, one storyline involving Sam’s first girlfriend is fairly cringey and is really the only thing in the film that feels out of place. The film is at its best when focusing on the relationship between Sam, his mother, and his father. Benny and his sisters all feel a little underwritten but it doesn’t cloud over anything since the main focus of the film is clearly on Sam and his parents.

As far as the performances go there are quite a few things to break down. Let’s start with the one getting most of the hype: Michelle Williams. While she’s not bad by any means…I just don’t get how she’s been getting the attention that she has been. While the character of Mitzi is clearly supposed to be eccentric and unstable, Williams goes so over the top in her performance that more often than not her performance becomes distracting and she’s often outshined by those around her, despite Spielberg’s best efforts. Spielberg deserves credit for not pulling any punches in his depiction of her but to me Williams’ soap opera-like portrayal is too much at times. As for the rest of the cast, this Gabirel LaBelle kid was amazing. Everything from his scenes as a young filmmaker, a brother, a son, a boyfriend, a victim of bullying, he pulls off everything and holds his own against a more seasoned cast. There’s one scene during the California section of the movie that absolutely floored me with how an actor so young could nail such a heavy scene. But perhaps my favorite scene in the movie involves a brief performance from Judd Hirsch as Sam’s Uncle Boris who comes to sit Shiva with the family following the passing of Mitzi’s mother. Boris, who worked in both the circus and the film industry, gives an incredible speech to Sam about how art will rip you apart but becomes so necessary to your identity that you continue to lose yourself. Hirsch is so powerful in his limited time on screen that he can’t help but leave an incredible impact on Sam and the story moving forward. Also, credit to Paul Dano who gives some of his best work here as Sam’s father. Dano has had such a great career and it feels like he’s one of those guys whose claim to fame is for the recognition he hasn’t received but if you’ve seen his body of work, notably Little Miss Sunshine, Prisoners, and The Batman, it’s incredible how much range this guy has.

Awards season is going to be an interesting time for this one. The film itself will receive its fair share of recognition but there is a cloud of legacy hanging over it. This is Steven Spielberg we’re talking about and we’re talking about a semi-autobiography of his childhood. Its his most personal work to date and he nailed it. The cinematography is beautiful and filled with memorable sequences, the music and editing are all spectacular, and the script is tight, though not perfect. There are three or four performances that could sneak into the race, with Williams being the only lock at this point, and Spielberg is possibly the favorite for Best Director. Whether its in Best Picture, Best Director, or Best Original Screenplay, anything Spielberg wins will likely have an label of “he won because he’s Spielberg.” And there is some truth to that, he hasn’t won anything since the 20th century despite plenty of chances so there is a narrative that he’s long overdue for a win. But is The Fabelmans “the best” at anything this year? I’m not so sure.

This was definitely one of the better films of 2022. Had I seen it two days earlier I probably would have thrown it into my top 20 for the year. Well acted, beautifully shot, and incredibly personal from one of cinema’s true icons like we’ve never seen him before. The Fabelmans deserves plenty of recognition but its far from perfect.

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