Is this the big Oscar winner for 2023?

The Fabelmans by Spielberg: An emotional crowd-pleaser

Steven Spielberg’s superpower is making films that audiences love, but it may also be his biggest shortcoming, pushing him in the direction of sentimentality (“ET go home”). His autobiographical book The Fabelmans is unquestionably popular.
 |  Borena Kuliashvili  | 

At the Toronto Film Festival, it took home the Audience Award, catapulting it to the front of the Oscars race. But although mainly avoiding self-indulgence, this fictional depiction of his youth and adolescence is nonetheless one of his most demanding and emotionally sincere pictures. It is one of the most sincere and poignant movies of the year. It is infused with familial warmth but also has a knowing adult eye on the loss of innocence.

Spielberg is well known for telling tales of shattered families, but the plot of this one isn’t being driven by a cute alien or a UFO. Instead, it draws on Spielberg’s prowess as a master storyteller, allowing us to follow Sammy, the Spielberg doppelganger, as he navigates his parents’ divorce and his career as a filmmaker. The Fabelmans is obviously quite accurate to truth because Spielberg has shared a significant portion of that narrative in interviews throughout the years. Sammy is taken to the movies by Burt (Paul Dano), a computer engineer with a practical mindset, and Mitzi (Michelle Williams), a creative mom, on a cold night in 1952. The young Steven’s experience watching Cecil B. DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth, as he actually did, is awe-inspiring, terrifying, and life-changing (Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord). Spielberg has undoubtedly received traits from both parents because of the technical precision of his films, which are filled with surreal elements.

The family travels with Burt’s job from New Jersey to Arizona to California, with Sammy (played as an adolescent by Gabriel LaBelle) and his three sisters along for the ride, but Mitzi is the human dynamo powering the picture. Williams portrays a suburban mom who could have made a living as a pianist while capturing all of her enthusiasm and underlying despair. She is adored by everyone around her but is also the ultimate disruption to the family, with her blonde pixie hair, lacquered red nails, and Peter Pan collars – the period details are vivid and accurate. She seems to be equally reckless and full of life. She packs her kids into the car and heads into a tornado because she finds it exciting, only to realize afterwards that she put them in danger.

She might have easily taken the movie by herself, but Spielberg never loses sight of the intricate family dynamics. Compared to his colorful wife, Burt is quiet and modest, making the part far less dazzling. Dano, however, brilliantly conveys Burt’s fundamental decency in a subtle manner. Dano also reveals that when the marriage breaks down, Burt realizes what he refuses to acknowledge, even to himself.

By skillfully delivering information to us in vivid, genuine family moments, Spielberg and Tony Kushner, a longtime collaborator on films like West Side Story and Lincoln, enable us to get to know the people without imposing their viewpoints on us. Unlike the majority of mothers in the 1950s, Mitzi sweeps the paper tablecloth up around the dinner plates before throwing it all away. Burt’s mother Hadassah (Jeannie Berlin) makes a hint about difficulties the kids aren’t yet aware of over that same dinner. Bennie, Burt’s greatest buddy, is always there for the family and especially for Mitzi (Seth Rogen). Hadassah retorts to her granddaughter when she calls him Uncle Bennie, “He’s not your uncle.”

LaBelle’s face is sensitive and expressive in a naturalistic portrayal that relies on emotions, letting us know how Sammy is feeling. Spielberg injects humor by showcasing the amateur movies Sammy makes and by using his sisters and friends in a Western called Gunsmog. Additionally, during a family camping vacation, Mitzi dances in the headlights of the automobile while wearing an embroidered translucent dress, captivating Burt and Bennie while humiliating one of her daughters, Reggie (Julia Butters). In a shocking moment of realization, Sammy discovers a fact hidden in the home movie that reveals the shortcomings of his beloved mother.

The Fabelmans does not completely refrain from pandering to the crowd. Art will break your heart out, warns Mitzi’s Uncle Boris (a scenery-chewing Judd Hirsch) when he pays a visit. The camera stays on Williams’ face when Mitzi realizes her kid has discovered her secret. The scene is tense, heartbreaking, and a little too Oscar-bait-y.

The title of the movie alludes to mythmaking and the way our family stories often take on hazy life of their own. However, Spielberg is uncompromising when it comes to Mitzi’s selfishness in severing the family and Burt’s narrow-minded demand that Sammy should be realistic about a profession and stop daydreaming about making movies. Spielberg forgives their worst traits because he can see them through the lens of time, which is reminiscent of the famous quote from Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game: “Everybody has their reasons.” The Fabelmans is so moving because of its huge heartfelt compassion.

***

The Fabelmans debuts on November 23 in the US and January 23 in the UK.

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