Three years after Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019) and one year since P.T. Anderson’s Licorice Pizza (2021), Steven Spielberg now offers his own take on the mid-20th century West Coast through the eyes of a film lover.
As someone who has been a lifelong film aficionado, I’m intrigued by this trend, as indulgent as it can be sometimes. Of the three filmmakers, Spielberg is the most seasoned and ironically, probably the most modest.
The Fabelmans is quite clearly inspired by Spielberg’s own childhood, and with this film we get an enchanting love letter to both the filmmaker’s family and his passion for cinema.
Beginning in New Jersey, then Arizona, and finally California, the Fabelman family move across the United States in the late 1950s and early 1960s for Burt Fabelman’s (Paul Dano) impressive job at General Electric while his son Sam (played by Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord as a child, and Gabriel LaBelle as a teen) discovers a love of movies.
Although the Fabelmans seem like a content, ordinary Jewish family on the outside, there is inward personal turmoil. Sam’s mother Mitzi (Michelle Williams) is having a secret affair with Burt’s co-worker, Bennie (Seth Rogen), while Sam is experiencing anti-Semitism in high school.
Comedy old-timers Jeannie Berlin and Judd Hirsch appear as elderly relatives of the Fabelmans, while writer-director David Lynch has a wonderful cameo as old Hollywood veteran John Ford. Though probably coincidences, Julia Butters—who previously had a memorable role in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood — co-stars as one of Sam’s sisters, and Isabelle Kusman — who had a bit part in Licorice Pizza — has a supporting role in The Fabelmans as well.
My main takeaway from Spielberg’s latest effort is that the filmmaker has a lot of complicated feelings regarding his mother. We witness Mitzi as an encouraging and caring mom to her children, but also see her in at least three very unflattering moments as a parent, even if she’s characterized as clinically depressed.
Portrayed with a typical Williams-esque performance, Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner don’t condone or condemn Mitzi’s choices, but let them play out as they would in real life. Dano and LaBelle are the real stand-outs in the cast, especially LaBelle, who not only has the task of making an on-screen interpretation of Spielberg’s younger self not seem like too much of an impression, but is also in his first lead role.
It could have been easy for Spielberg and Kushner to make The Fabelmans another cliché homage to Hollywood that we’ve seen many times before. But instead, this is more like a family drama meets coming-of-age piece with a cinema backdrop. We don’t even really get any Easter eggs to Spielberg’s own classics on screen.
The tone and direction of Fabelmans aren’t as dry as Once Upon a Time in Hollywood or Licorice Pizza, but that’s to be expected for Spielberg fans, who are now very familiar with his whimsy and optimism.
My minor nit-picks with the feature are the contemporary-sounding slang during the school scenes, and Sam’s cringe-worthy love interest (an aroused, though still sexually repressed Catholic classmate played by Chloe East). Though maybe that’s how Spielberg did view his first girlfriend for all we know.
Along with supposedly being the final collaboration between Spielberg and composer John Williams, The Fabelmans is a must for cinema fans and especially for Spielberg devotees.