There are people, myself included at my hipster underground film-lover worst, who derisively refer to Steven Spielberg as a “safe” filmmaker. He’s not out here making the kind of controversial, opaque, divisive films that I usually gravitate towards. Spielberg joints aren’t where I go to be challenged or shocked or be driven out of my seat in panic like the multiple horror or avant-garde movies I subject myself to on a weekly basis. No, Spielbergs are a comfortable duvet under which I can get lost in a fantasy, an unforgettable but rarely uncomfortable experience.
It’s hard to argue against the idea that if any director in the whole world embodies mainstream, mass-market filmmaking, it’s Spielberg. He is so synonymous with directing that his is highly likely to be the first name anyone offers when you ask them to name a filmmaker. But it’s not like that reputation is unearned. Spielberg is a master of his craft, a risk-taker if only in the sense that any part of the filmmaking process is a risk. And Spielberg is one of the best to ever do it, and one of the first to do it on a modern blockbuster scale.
So, even though I initially rolled my eyes a bit at the idea of Spielberg writing and directing what I thought to be a safe, self-congratulatory final bid for an Oscar in The Fabelmans, I’d heard so much incredible buzz around it at TIFF this year from mainstream critics to my usual cadre of hard-edged horror fans that I had to snag a ticket, and folks, I’m glad I did. Because, goddammit, Spielberg’s ability to engulf me in movie magic – the very same magic he’s wielded effortlessly for decades in Jaws and ET and Jurassic Park and his whole library of films – has enraptured me again, in spite of myself.
The Fabelmans is a barely-disguised autobiographical piece in which
Spielberg Sam Fabelman (Gabriel Labelle), a boy with an innate talent for filmmaking, comes of age in the 1960’s and he uses his camera to navigate family strife and a childhood plagued by his parents unstable marriage, high school bullying, and a Christ-loving but randy girlfriend.
Michelle Williams shines as Sam’s mother Mitzi, the tortured but talented artist and who has abandoned her dreams of being a concert pianist. She’s trapped in a marriage with a fiercely logical, successful engineer that dotes on her but fails to provide the excitement and spark that she craves. But from the first moments of her performance, Williams allows you to bask in her glow as adores her family and imbues them with the same wonder with which she views the world, even as she longs for more. Her performance in The Fabelmans is show-stealing (and in my opinion, Oscar-worthy), along with that of Paul Dano who plays Sam’s father Burt. Burt’s is an even tougher assignment for an actor, having to put in a nuanced performance where your opinions of him may change drastically as the film wears on. But Dano is game as always. Burt is ambitious and layered as a character, doing his best to support his son’s talent as a director from a logical, problem-solving perspective while trying to temper Sam’s expectations for what he knows to be an unlikely shot at success in the dog-eat-dog world of Hollywood. Seth Rogen’s affable Benny is an understated performance, a character on the periphery of the Fabelman family, like a beloved uncle so likeable that he slowly and subtly drives a wedge between Mitzi and Burt.
As for Sam himself, Labelle is very much up to the challenge of hanging with the acting powerhouses who make up his co-stars. His is a nuanced performance as well, in a film that (as with Dano’s) asks him to navigate a character that doesn’t always do the right thing, but has a strong sense of purpose and drive for most of the film, knocking down the various barriers in the way of his filmmaking success. But these barriers rarely feel like barriers at all, with his undeniable talent smoothing out any real setbacks.
Unlike most films about filmmaking, The Fabelmans is decidedly not the story of an uphill battle to make movies where a young, driven director has to scrape together meagre resources to put together the simplest of productions. Sam’s talents are nurtured, mostly by his mother but really both of his parents outside of a brief few moments, for the entire film and because his family is wealthy, making movies on a relatively big and complex scale for the time period and for Sam’s youth never feels like a struggle for him. Even high-quality cameras seem to fall into his lap. At one point he pawns his beloved camera in frustration, and not more than five minutes later does Benny show up with a better one, as if in compensation for Benny trying to mack on Mitzi. At another point, it’s conveniently dropped that Sam’s girlfriend’s father owns a better-still, top-of-the-line camera too and freely passes it off for Sam’s use. You never get the sense that Sam’s had much of a tough time making films, and they’re always received with adulation by his peers. He’s just that good!
But once the films are made, or at least shot, their power and their effect on Sam’s life become profound. They help him cope with the (relatively low stakes) problems he has, or at least understand them. They transform the way he sees the world, and his friends and family, both for good and ill. Ultimately, Sam Fabelman is probably going to be fine because we, the audience, know he’s going to grow up to be Steven Spielberg. There’s no big surprise here, and maybe a movie like The Fabelmans doesn’t need that. It easily clears the bar to being one of my favourites of the year because it’s Spielberg putting his own particular brand of joy and beauty onscreen one more time while coaxing a few more outstanding performances from an outstanding cast. He’s the high school band you loved that’s playing all the hits and not deviating much from there, and sometimes that’s exactly what you need.
The Fabelmans will be released in theatres on November 11, 2022.