‘The Fabelmans’: A peak behind the curtain of a cinematic master

Illustration+by

Connor Youngberg

Illustration by

Jack Muscatello, Associate Multimedia Editor

There are few filmmakers working today with as expansive a resume as Steven Spielberg. From introducing the blockbuster in the mid-70s to leading the rise of visual effects spectacles, the director has tried almost every conceivable way to tell a story on the silver screen.

But his latest work, the semi-autobiographical “The Fabelmans” is by far his most personal.

The drama, which released in theaters on Nov. 23, follows a young Sam Fabelman as he struggles to harbor his passion for film within the confines of his disjointed family. His father Burt Fabelman maintains a loving yet direct view of his son’s interest, often cautioning him against his wild ambitions. Opposite him is his mother Mitzi Fabelman, who embraces a more fluid and deeply emotional perspective, constantly pushing Sam Fabelman to embrace his talent and push further with each project.

Sam Fabelman exists as a stand-in for Spielberg himself, who penned the screenplay during the pandemic and treats the film as a fundamentally reflective piece. He goes to great lengths to break down his life’s calling, shedding light on the complex dynamic he shared with his parents, his Jewish heritage and his ever-present desire to craft a visual story worth showcasing.

As he has done throughout his career, Spielberg routinely favors reactions from his cast, prioritizing longer shots of tearful smiles and angry eyes during extended conversations and heated arguments. The performances across the board elevate each scene, hitting silent moments of buried emotion and loud outbursts with equal strength.

Newcomer Gabriel LaBelle shines as Sam Fabelman. He does much of the heavy-lifting with his eyes, and allows the pretentiousness of the character’s youthful aspirations to come across as charming and honest. Paul Dano affords Burt Fabelman an ideal balance of affection and sincere rigidity, making him a surprisingly emotional staple in the story from start to finish.

But the easy standout is Michelle Williams, who makes a strong case for Oscar recognition as Mitzi Fabelman. She provides so much complexity to the role, bringing out the best of her motherly instincts while also unearthing a problematic selfish tendency that drives the core conflict in the story. Much of the film’s weight rests on her shoulders, and she nails each scene flawlessly.

The technicalities, as one would expect from Spielberg, are as top notch as ever, with help from his frequent collaborators. The cinematography provides a strong, glowing aesthetic to each frame, visually echoing the wonder and awe that befalls Sam Fabelman throughout. The editing gives each scene ample time to breathe, and showcases the best of the script’s dialogue-heavy interactions. John Williams’ score adds to the reflective tone, carrying the weight of his decades-long partnership with Spielberg through soft, piano-driven pieces.

What is arguably most impressive, though, is the film’s biggest selling point: its deeply personal perspective.

For most of his career, Spielberg has kept his personal life largely reserved from the public eye, preferring to channel his regrets, anxieties and struggles through his characters on screen. The child actors in his earlier works carried out thoughtful representations of his youthful spirit and inherent curiosity. Over the years, his lead characters evolved, transitioning into stories with a more realistic edge, larger conflicts and resolutions that often lacked simplicity.

With “The Fabelmans,” the director has found a perfect middle ground. He retains all of the grace and magic synonymous with his escapist projects of the 70s and 80s, but meshes this brilliantly with the much more difficult drama that has been his focus for the past 20 years.

He hasn’t lost touch with his adolescent mind, but he also doesn’t hesitate to be critical of it. Where the film could have easily devolved into an exaggerated sequence of self-congratulatory boasts, Spielberg pulls back his curtain, welcomes the audience in and engages with the best and worst moments of his pivotal coming-of-age. It’s a rarely honest work within an industry built on visual illusion, and demands to be seen.