Growing up in post-World War II era Arizona, a young man named Sammy Fabelman discovers a shattering family secret and explores how the power of films can help him see the truth.
Inspired by his own childhood and infatuation with cinema and filmmaking, The Fabelmans feels like everything Steven Spielberg’s career has been leading up to until now. But not only is it personal and revealing, it’s a masterpiece in its own right that earns its spot amongst other Spielberg classics. Michelle Williams somehow tops her remarkable work in Blue Valentine and Manchester by the Sea in one of the most powerful performances in Spielberg’s recent films. Williams makes the role and everything it demands hers. Along with his co-writer Tony Kushner, who also worked with the director on Munich, Lincoln and West Side Story, Spielberg paints an empathetic look at his mother through Williams’ character, Mitzi Fabelman, but also doesn’t shy away from her flaws and shortcomings, though never quite judging her. As the family’s patriarch Burt, Paul Dano delivers his most restrained but possibly most impactful performance yet, as the logos to Mitzi’s pathos, who does everything, even if it’s spending lots of time with his work or being firm with his kids, out of love and pride for his family. Seth Rogen is also excellent as Sammy’s surrogate uncle, portraying the most endearing and complex role of his career — not to mention Judd Hirsch in a hilarious few minutes of screentime. But Gabrille LaBelle as Sammy himself is a breakout to behold. He rips into your heart as a young man who embodies the aspiration and underdog not just in Spielberg but in all of us, as he works through familial conflicts, (sometimes anti-Semitic) bullying, and adolescence through empathy and, as sappy yet poetic as it sounds, film.
Along with his frequent collaborator behind the camera, cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, Spielberg makes basic settings such as a camping site or a high school hallway feel like a fairy tale. The production value along with the colors of the scenery make the simplest 1950s and 60s settings look grand, and makes film and cameras look like a weapon that spews greatness and wonder wherever it goes, because to the legendary filmmaker, that’s exactly what it is, and he makes you feel it in every frame. Even if you’re a cinema buff, it’s the most human coming-of-age story about family in a long time that juxtaposes innocence with the mistakes people, especially parental figures, can make — but the importance their humanity has on their children — and the uncertainty yet optimism of the world that is to come for Sammy Fabelman. Spielberg also manages to tell entire stories about certain characters’ backgrounds without ever directly addressing them, simply through their reactions and decisions. It’s incredible that about 50 years and 40 movies into his career, he still manages to surprise us and make us in awe, but don’t worry, there’s a lot of laugh-out-loud humor as well, so much effectively for a movie that isn’t ever quite a comedy. Knowing where the director’s story ends makes this journey with him, which is 2-and-a-half hours but earns every minute of it, even more gratifying. This movie especially resonated with me for its striking depiction of how movies and filmmaking can make you feel less lonely, as Spielberg’s films have for around half a century now. It’ll entertain, inspire and touch all ages, feeling like the culmination of his creative career yet unlike almost anything he’s ever made before. By the end you’d want to thank him for the opportunity to peer into his world.