It’s no secret that Steven Spielberg has always used cinema as an opportunity to work through his issues, almost as a form of therapy. E.T. the Extra-terrestrial, for example, Spielberg has long claimed was a way for him to process his parents’ divorce. The Fabelmans adds a layer of complexity to this tendency, an extra degree of separation: It’s not just a movie where he uses filmmaking as a means of therapy. It’s a movie directly about a young version of himself doing just that on screen. But although The Fabelmans originates in Spielberg’s subconscious, it’s far from a philosophical meditation – it contains all of the magic and reverence for filmmaking that define the director’s best work. With a star-making performance from newcomer Gabriel LaBelle, The Fabelmans is a microcosm of everything we love about going to the movies.
When young Sammy Fabelman (played as a child by Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord) is taken by his parents to see The Greatest Show on Earth, it’s all over for him: A lifetime love affair with the silver screen has begun. When he gets a train set for Hanukkah, he is obsessed with recreating the train crash scene from the film. His father is horrified: This train set is a finely tuned mechanical wonder; you don’t just crash it for no reason. But his mother has the idea of getting him a film camera so that he can crash the cars once, then watch it repeatedly – A way to assert control over an unpredictable world and a lens through which to view everything around him. The Fabelmans follows the formative years of Sammy Fabelman, from his childhood in New York to his teen years in Arizona and California, moving westward to accommodate his father’s work (and, it would seem, several attempts to get a fresh start on a failing marriage). Throughout all of this, Sammy finds an escape in film, shooting increasingly complex movies with his friends and family.
To bring to life an approximation of his own childhood, Spielberg has amassed a remarkable cast of actors who all seem to be able to tap into what makes each of their individual characters uniquely human. Michelle Williams, as his creative, deeply empathic mother, Mitzi, is incandescent – she’s funny, charming, bright, and always the center of attention (sometimes to a fault). She has a face you can’t look away from, beautiful in its sadness. Her dance sequence, lit by the headlights of their car on a camping trip, is hypnotic, and all of her quiet moments of tenderness caught on screen make her come across as a woman it is simply impossible not to love.
Paul Dano’s performance is less showy but equally masterful. As the calm patriarch of the Fabelman household and flourishing computer science, he is a man made up of numbers and procedures – his quietly pragmatic nature operates as a balm for Williams’ artistic temperament, but it will also never come close to offering emotional fulfillment for her. Still, he is a man who cares deeply, perhaps more than anyone knows. As the family friend whose relationship with Sammy’s mother is a little on the complicated side, Seth Rogan puts in maybe the most impressive dramatic performance of his career. He’s sunny and quick to laugh, but he also has this undercurrent of deep longing that makes his character feel richly textured, even in light-hearted sequences. You also have Judd Hirsch as Sammy’s great-uncle, who rolls into town in the aftermath of his grandmother’s death with the force of the freight train and has a solid 10 minutes where he owns every inch of the screen.
But the show’s real star is Gabriel LaBelle, who plays Sammy Fabelman as a teenager. Spielberg has long had a reputation for finding incredible young talents – Henry Thomas in E.T. The Extraterrestrial, Christian Bale in Empire of the Sun – and LaBelle joins his cadre of breakout stars. He brings an effortless charm and sense of humor to the proceedings, a passion for film that never becomes pretentious. LaBelle is the beating heart of a Spielbergian epic, no easy role to fill, but he carries it off with aplomb.
The Fabelmans is hardly a bold, surprising film. But it has all the warmth and sentiment of Spielberg operating at the top of his game on a project he’s emotionally invested in. The characters sparkle onscreen, each actor bringing nuance and charm to their roles as they play out Spielberg’s family drama. It may ultimately be less about the magic of the cinema than the comfort of it, the ritual, as it serves as a constant companion throughout all the trials and tribulations of his young life.