“Loosely based on Spielberg’s childhood growing up in post-World War II era Arizona, from age seven to eighteen, a young man named Sammy Fabelman discovers a shattering family secret, and explores how the power of movies help us see the truth about each other and ourselves.”

Director: Steven Spielberg
Writers: Steven Spielberg, Tony Kushner
Staring: Michelle Williams, Gabriel LaBelle, Paul Dano, Judd Hirsch, Seth Rogen
Rated: PG-13
Release Date: November 23, 2022

If anyone has earned the right to be self-reflective and make it massive Hollywood story, it would be Steven Spielberg. The three-time Oscar winner (surprisingly low, right?) takes the audience back to a post World War II era in America and puts the audience in the shoes of aspiring young filmmaker Sammy Fabelman (Gabriel LaBelle). Through this young man’s eyes we learn how formative moments of adolescence affect personal dreams and both personal/family developments.

The Fabelmans begins with a young Sammy being introduced to the movies by his parents Mitzi (Michelle Williams) and Burt (Paul Dano). Sammy is transfixed by the moving pictures and he becomes obsessed with making home made movies. As Sammy grows and the family dynamic evolves, Mitzi does her best to encourage her son’s creative process while Burt is struggling to accept it as anything more as a hobby.

Stress is put on everyone’s lives when Burt’s job forces the Fabelmans to move, and Sammy finds himself in a personal pickle when his skill with the camera illuminates a truth about his mother and her father’s best friend Bennie (Seth Rogen). New homes, changing relationships and differing opinions on priorities culminate in Sammy needing to make some difficult choices. The Fabelmans paints itself as a grown man’s childhood-esq love for movie-making, but the story itself takes dark turns toward serious drama.

Gabriel LaBelle as Sammy Fabelman

If there was an Academy Award for breakout star (which there should be), Gabriel LaBelle might be atop the podium as the winner. It can not be easy to step into the shoes of a fictional childhood version of one of Hollywood’s greatest film directors of all time. It can not be easy acting about this director’s childhood persona, right in front of them.

There are two acting performances that got nominated from The Fabelmans. One I whole heartedly do not agree with, and the other I can understand it. Let’s start out with the egregious first.

Michelle Williams as Mitzi falls prey to my biggest gripe of The Fablemans. She takes a dive into the pool of over zealousness. Her portrayal of Sammy’s mom reminds me of a Saturday morning cartoon show combined with a mid-afternoon soap opera. Her smile is always as wide as possible and her sadness is always tearful. There isn’t much in the middle area. She is the emotional one, and she is the antithesis of her husband Burt (Paul Dano) and his objective approach to work.

Perhaps this speaks to me as a person, but Michelle Williams’s performance had me pushing the cringe button. Mitzi was the outlier of the family, which makes me feel like WIlliams is the outlier with her performance. There was a lot THIS or THAT, and she sometimes colored outside of the lines.

The there is Judd Hirsch. He plays Uncle Boris, the brother of Mitzi’s mother who visits followed her death. Boris is in the movie for less than 10 minutes, but the 87-year-old still manages to have one of the most impactful scenes of the movie.

Uncle Boris: [to Sammy] We’re junkies. Art is our drug.

By no means am I comparing myself to Uncle Boris, Sammy Fabelman or Steven Spielberg in terms of art. I am not artist compared to them. The part about this Uncle Boris monologue that hits me in the gut is when Boris talks to Sammy about people patronizing his hobby. Having a passion that someone thinks is meaningless. The idea that someone defining something you care about is a version of gatekeeping I do not enjoy. Uncle Boris is being the ultimate coach right now and telling Sammy to listen to his gut, and stop lying to himself. He loves the cinema more than his family, and Boris is giving Sammy permission to accept that. He comes straight out and says it, and that is what makes it harder for Sammy to accept it. It is a knockout punch, and the kid’s psyche is stumbling.

The best unsung performance of The Fablemans is that of Chloe East. The young actress plays Monica Sherwood, the early and first love interest of Sammy Fabelman. Her relationship with Sammy puts him on tilt, makes him uncomfortable, and is arguably the most important of his life. She is instrumental in getting Sammy back into filmmaking, and she is the cause of his first real heartbreak. Monica taught Sammy some of the most important lessons he will have ever learned in life. Chloe East brings Monica to life with a determination and a confidence that never waivered. She has her conviction, but she still looks through an objective keyhole. East as Monica delivers one of the best and most profound lines in the movie:

Monica Sherwood: [to Sammy] Sometimes we can’t fix things, Sam. All we can do, is suffer.

Gabriel LaBelle and Chloe East dancing it out at prom

The budget for The Fabelmans was reportedly 40 million dollars, and its gross un the US and Canada came out to just under 18 million dollars. Some would call this a box office failure, but wouldn’t be telling the fell story. If you told production companies Amblin Entertainment, Amblin Partners, Reliance Entertinament and Universal Picture that you’d have a movie with seven Oscar nominations, I think they would take it.

At the 95th Academy Awards, The Fabelmans was nominated for Best Directing, Best Original Score, Best Picture, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor, Best Original Screenplay and Best Production Design. I have already mentioned my gripes with Michelle Williams’s performance getting nominated, but on a more positive note I should mention that this is John Williams’s 53rd Oscar nomination. He is second to only Walt Disney who has 59 in his career.

Speaking from a Stanko’s Stance point of view, I had The Fabelmans nominated for four Academy awards; Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, Best Production Design and Best Picture. In my last personal nominations I had it taking home the Production Design award. The vibrancy of the peppiness of the time era is captured in a visually striking way. I got the feel that it was designed just a bit over the top and cartoonish, just like the way the bullies behaved. The visual campiness of it worked for me, but as mentioned before, the scenes at the California high school remain my least favorite part of the movie.

Also just for shits and giggles, I had The Fablemans ranked seventh in my rankings for the Best Picture among the 10 movies nominated at the 95th Academy Awards.

Steven Spielberg’s next movie is based on the classic Steve McQueen 1968 movie Bullitt. Bradley Cooper is set to star as Frank Bullitt in what will be Spielberg’s first non-CGI based action movie since War Horse (2011). There are heavily animated movies like The Adventures Of Tintin (2011) and Ready Player One (2018), but this is going to be a different element. The care chases that McQueen took part in are rather iconic in Hollywood history it will be Spielberg’s job to recapture that. But who are we to doubt Spielberg after he brought new life into West Side Story (2021)?

The Fabelmans is really good. Steven Spielberg does not make bad movies (very often). It deserved many of the seven nominations that it got, but it never reached the top tier of of the Best Picture contenders. It may be a bit of Spielberg fatigue because we know he can do this magic almost effortlessly. He has the magic touch to make any story look beautiful.

The Fabelmans is very good movie and is my favorite Spielberg project since Lincoln (2012). Watch The Fabelmans. You will not regret it.

STANKO RATING: B+ (3.5/5 Stars)

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