Writer’s note: The second paragraph of this article (just below the first image) contains a basic outline of the film’s premise. There are no spoilers that weren’t already inferred in the film’s own trailer. However, if you want to completely avoid potential spoilers, skip over the second paragraph.
The one thing filmmakers should probably stay away from is telling stories about themselves. The irony is that most filmmakers just can’t help themselves, eventually succumbing to the spectre of their own work. Usually the self-inserting is rather subtle, as shown by Luke Skywalker being a representation of George Lucas in Star Wars (1977), or The Prestige (2006) being a metaphor for Christopher Nolan’s perspective on filmmaking. In other cases, filmmakers look back at their previous work with hints of regret, as seen with Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman (2019), Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019), or David Fincher’s Mank (2020). In the most extreme cases, they will deliver a film which essentially retells their life with the names changed, as seen with P.T. Anderson’s Licorice Pizza (2021). Steven Spielberg’s The Fablemans (2022) attempts all these styles at once.
The story begins in New Jersey circa 1952, as we are introduced to Sammy Fableman (Gabriel LaBelle), a young boy in a Jewish family consisting of his mother Mitzi (Michelle Williams), father Burt (Paul Dano), and three sisters Reggie (Julia Butters), Natalie (Keeley Karsten) and Lisa (Sophia Kopera). After seeing Cecil B. DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) and John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), Sammy finds himself completely in awe of the power of cinema and launches into making amateur films of his own. However, Sammy’s passion for filmmaking is put to the test as his art affects his connection with his family, which is made even more complicated by his parents’ marriage slowly starting to break down.
At first glance, The Fablemans feels about as self-indulgent as films can get, as it’s a barely disguised autobiography of director Steven Spielberg’s own troubled childhood. Much of Spielberg’s upbringing is fairly well documented, so anyone with even a passing familiarity of the filmmaker’s story will spot the similarities a mile away. One would think that this makes The Fablemans a cringe-inducing chore to sit through, but Spielberg didn’t get to where he is today by accident. There’s a reason why Spielberg has produced some of the best and most popular films of all time, and that’s because he can tap into emotions universally felt by everyone on the planet. From that perspective, it’s rather shocking that he’s able to make the viewer feel that same sense of connection, even when he’s speaking from an extremely personal place.
Yes, not everyone who watches The Fablemans can relate to Spielberg’s love of cinema, but nearly everyone can relate to everything else presented in the narrative. Whether it’s having complicated relationships with members of your family, grief over losing someone close to you, experiencing a first love, facing persecution for being culturally alien, or building a love for a vocation, Spielberg has taken his story and made it into something most people can empathise with. This is the kind of story which feels incredibly true to life, because it finds a perfect balance between moments of sadness and moments of joy. As an added bonus, Spielberg finds humanity in nearly every character, even when their actions seem selfish or misguided. Outside of one ignorant schoolyard bully, everyone in this story is given sympathetic dimensions, resulting in a fair and honest appraisal of all the characters’ feelings.
When dealing with this many characters, themes and relatable life events, films like this can sometimes feel aimless. Thankfully, Spielberg manages to make it all cohesive, managing to connect the dots in a way that feels natural. One moment effortlessly bleeds into the next, and character beats early in the film are perfectly set up for later revelations. What makes this most refreshing is that none of the streamlining takes away from the film’s scale, as it still feels like we are watching life unfold, with all the unforeseen chaos that implies. This is most evident by the fact that certain important characters come and go throughout, only appearing for one or two scenes before never showing up again. Despite this, everyone contributes to the overall narrative and overall messaging, which isn’t easy to pull off.
Oddly, the film is at its weakest when it focuses on Sammy’s love of filmmaking. This isn’t to say it’s not strong or interesting, as it’s definitely the driving force of the entire plot and is the lynchpin for the thematic layers. However, the moments which really pull on the heart strings are the ones dedicated to the family, their struggles and their relationships. Granted, the filmmaking aspect is tied to the family aspect, but it feels somewhat less important overall. This dissonance is punctuated by the film’s final moments, which seems to completely abandon the themes of family in favour of endorsing creative auteurism. This final message certainly belongs in this story, and it does leave you with a smile, but some viewers may feel like the elements they were more invested in didn’t come to a completely satisfying resolution.
Obviously, it’s impossible to talk about a Spielberg film without mentioning his long time collaborators, cinematographer Janusz Kaminski and composer John Williams. Both are rarely praised these days, as everyone knows they are the best in their respective fields, meaning their talents are taken for granted. If The Fablemans proves anything, it’s that Kaminski is still able to produce consistently gorgeous visuals, and Williams is still able to produce beautifully heartwarming music. The Fablemans is reportedly going to be Williams’ last film before retirement, meaning his work here will go down in history just for the sheer significance of how great he was, even at the end of the road. Additionally, the cast all give enjoyable and heartwarming performances, with Michelle Williams, Paul Dano, Gabriel LaBelle, Seth Rogen and Judd Hirsch delivering some of their best work.
Given that he’s been around for so long, people keep expecting Spielberg to move aside and let younger filmmakers take his crown. While that’s definitely a worthwhile perspective for the sake of progress, it’s hard to deny that Spielberg is still consistently making films that deserve attention. Yes, the idea of seeing a director deliver a film about himself feels gross, but The Fablemans proves to be a genuinely sweet and standout entry among Spielberg’s recent offerings.
Best way to watch it: With a smile.