By Bradley Lane
When I learned that Steven Spielberg’s next film was set to be a semi-autobiographical story about his childhood, I was less than excited. Not only has his more recent output been lacking the touch and charm of his earlier films, but this sort of story is typically rife with trite sentimentality. However, there were early signs that this might be different than the disappointments of Ready Player One, The Post, and The BFG. For one Spielberg reunited with the same co-writer, Tony Kushner, and cinematographer, Janusz Kaminski, of his 2021 return to form, West Side Story. What resulted from this collaboration was a supremely thoughtful film, equally melancholic and hopeful about the ways film has both alienated and saved Spielberg in his youth.
Sammy Fabelman is for all intents and purposes, a self-insert for Steven Spielberg, and Sammy’s family is a loose reconstruction of Spielberg’s own. From an early age we see how Sammy is introduced to film and how he leverages the power of captured images to ease anxiety in his own life, the greatest of which is his parents’ separation. Rendered in striking, often heartbreaking detail, Sammy tries his best to navigate antisemitism, his own creative drive, and how the fracturing of his family left him with trauma he has spent his entire life, and by extension, his filmmaking career grappling with.
What truly subverted my expectations about this film, is that all the marketing material would suggest it is about the magical, pure redemptive power of film. As a film lover, of course these types of narratives can resonate with me, but far more often I find them played out and hollow. The Fabelmans can sometimes engage in this oversimplification, but far more often Sammy’s relationship to film alienates himself from his loved ones. His early filmmaking puts financial stress on his family, he discovers his mother’s infidelity when editing film from a camping trip, and in a scene so startling and haunting I dare not spoil it here, Sammy completely disengages from a moment he should be present in to consider filmmaking as an escape from his complex emotions.
Unsurprisingly, with such a strong story at its center, Steven Spielberg is proved once again as a master of his craft. Using sophisticated blocking, shot compositions, and his signature one-take sequences, Spielberg is constantly elevating the emotional stakes of his story with innovative and exciting filmmaking. Paired with universally strong performances, The Fabelmans is my biggest surprise of last year, even though in hindsight it really shouldn’t have been. You can still catch The Fabelmans in limited capacity in theaters, but it is also available to rent or purchase from all video on demand services now. – 4.5/5 stars