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The Fabelmans Review by Paul Gibbs - Is It The Movie Spielberg Fans Are Hoping For?


Starring Michelle Williams, Paul Dano, Seth Rogen, Gabriel LaBelle, Julia Buttars, Jeannie Berlin, Robin Bartlett, Judd Hirsh and David Lynch
Written by Steven Spielberg & Tony Kushner
Directed by Steven Spielberg

It was in 1981, at the palatial one screen Villa Theatre in Holladay, Utah, that the magic of cinema grabbed my twin brother and me forever when as seven-year-olds we saw Raiders of the Lost Ark. It was not our first movie, and we already had a budding love of the cinema. But Raiders took it to a new level and cemented that (for better or for worse) movies would be my first love and my life’s dream. A year later, the same filmmaker who had taken two seven-year-old agoraphobic boys on the greatest adventure imaginable touched our hears forever with the beauty and emotion of E.T. – The Extra Terrestrial. Both of these experiences will always be tied in my mind and heart to my late mother, who took my siblings and me to see them, and then supported the passion for film that came from them. The films of Steven Spielberg gave my joy and made my imagination soar throughout my childhood. I grew up with them, and they grew up with me. In 1993, Jurassic Park was the last great blockbuster movie of my childhood, and Schindler’s List was a sort of right of passage as the first film of my adulthood which played a major role in shaping who I would be for the rest of my life. Through all of this, through my twin brother and me making our films with stuffed animals and eventually moving on to human actors, the person always there for it (until her health wouldn’t let her) was our mother.

The emotional connection to Spielberg’s films, and their connection to family, is so strong for me that I named my second son Peter because of Hook. While Hook may be an imperfectly realized vision of which Spielberg himself is not especially fond, there is a moment to me that perfectly encapsulates my feelings about fatherhood. “I know why I grew up: I wanted to be a father” Peter Banning says as he becomes Peter Pan again, and the ultimate happy thought makes him fly.
All of that was my way of setting up that The Fabelmans was no ordinary filmgoing experience for me. I’ve read everything I could about Spielberg, his life and his family since I was a kid. And a huge part of me has always wanted to see him make a film about his childhood, the early short films like Gunsmog and Escape to Nowhere, his relationship with his parents and how their divorce affected him. The film Spielberg has made of this is his most personal to date and stands with his greatest achievements. All of the talk of a third Best Director and other accolades is more than deserved.

Burt and Mitzi Fabelman (Paul Dano and Michelle Williams) are a loving but somewhat mismatched couple, with Burt being a genius with computers in their earlier days of development but somewhat reserved and introverted, and Mitzi being an extroverted and sensitive artist who gave up being a concert pianist to raise their son Sammy and his sisters. Their family unit grows to include Burt’s co-worker and friend “Uncle” Bennie Lowey (Seth Rogen), who seems always be with them, even on a family camping trip. Sammy, who is essentially young Steven, discovers a love of film and a very young age, and begins the make his own movies with his father’s 8mm movie camera.  As Sammy ages (changing from adorable child actor Mateo Zoryon Francis DeFord to teenaged Gabriel LaBelle), the films grow more ambitious and complex, just as the Fabelmans family life becomes more tumultuous, with the loss of a grandparent, multiple movies and growing disconnect between Burt and Mitzi.

The Fabelmans is only the fourth credited screenplay of Spielberg’s writing career, and his collaboration with playwright Tony Kushner (who co-wrote Munich and wrote Lincoln and last year’s West Side Story) reaches its zenith here in a beautiful script that carries the signature of both of them.  Spielberg and Kushner avoid many of the traps of the cinematic memoir by managing to feel structured and focused. But the journey of growing up is masterfully portrayed and capturing with stunningly genuine emotion. A superb cast certainly help, with Williams’ soulful but pained Mitzi offering the actress a role that would have been a lock to win her a Best Supporting Actress Oscar had she not decided to pursue the lead category (and could still potentially net her a win in a competitive year.). Dano is wonderfully understated in an equally excellent performance, and newcomer LaBelle embodies Spielberg stunningly that it reminded me of Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln. And it’s impossible to leave out the incomparable Judd Hirsch, who nearly steals the whole film in a brief but crucial role as Mitzi’s long-lost Uncle Boris. The young actresses who play Sammy’s sisters (especially Julia Buttars of One Upon a Time in Hollywood and The Gray Man) are also first-rate.

Spielberg’s visuals and sense of flow are sublime as usual, aided by master cinematographer Janusz Kaminski and ace editors Michael Kahn and Sarah Broshar.  There is an amazing sequence where Sammy is editing his footage of the family camping trip which I think should be enough to earn Kahn his fourth Oscar and Broshar her first. And of course, the legendary John Williams offers a deeply moving score that is slated to be his final for a Spielberg film, as the 90-year-old musical icon moves to retirement.

What it comes down to is that The Fabelmans is the movie Spielberg fans hoped it would be, and so much more. I found myself so drawn in and relating to Sammy’s filmmaking experiences that I felt like I was relieving my own young filmmaking adventures. And with my own parents (like Spielberg’s) having both passed away and having had an in some ways complex relationship, I was touched even more deeply by the family story. This is a film that is absolutely required viewing for any fan or student of Spielberg’s work, who will see both the genesis and ultimate culmination of the mother and father figures that have dominated his films. It stands as a major Spielberg work that will rank with his classics.  While I am obviously right in the bullseye of the target of those most likely to enjoy this film, I believe the vast majority of audiences will be entertained and moved by The Fabelmans even if they don’t geek out seeing the making of Escape to Nowhere.  It’s easily one of the best films of 2022, and one viewing was enough to make it one of my favorite films of all time.

PAUL GIBBS is an independent filmmaker, film critic and healthcare activist from West Valley City, Utah. He has written many reviews and articles for The Bearded Trio over the years and felt it was the right place for his review of The Fabelmans. His and his twin brother Patrick’s short films including Steve From Accounting Vs. The Shadow Dweller, Manic City, Lonely Night and Living in the Gap, as well as his mockumentary feature Social Anxiety have played at film festivals across the United States.

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