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03/06/2023 | Film and series review

"The Fabelmans" by Steven Spielberg: Distilled movie magic

by Felix Thielemann

With worldwide box office receipts of over ten billion dollars, 22 nominations at the Oscars and absolute classics such as Jaws, Jurassic Park, Saving Private Ryan or E.T. in his filmography, it is hardly presumptuous to describe Steven Spielberg as possibly the greatest director in film history. With The Fabelmans, his latest and probably most personal film is now being released. It deals semi-autobiographically with Spielberg's childhood - but with a different name in the film - as well as his relationship with his family and traces the beginnings of his career.

After his first visit to the cinema in 1952, young Sam Fableman (Gabriel LaBelle) is immediately fascinated by the moving images. After he sees a train crash into a car and then derail, he can't help but wish for a model train himself at the next opportunity and have it - filmed with his father's home camera - drive into his toy cars and watch the footage of it again and again. Accordingly, the next years of his childhood also look like this, in which he takes every opportunity - often with the help of his sisters - to reenact every imaginable scenario that is fascinating for children and to capture it on film. Over the years, these film projects become bigger and bigger, and home movies quickly evolve into impressive little feature films with rudimentary special effects and dozens of characters.

But as it belongs to every childhood and therefore also to every coming-of-age movie, Sam has to deal with various problems in the process. Besides common problems of teenagers, such as bullying at school, Sam's complicated relationship with his family and his Jewish heritage stands out. His parents (Michelle Williams and Paul Dano) always support him in his passion, be it through praise and encouragement, help on the set or financial support through the purchase of equipment, but the relationship between the two deteriorates more and more over the years. Accordingly, Sam's relationship with both suffers, but especially with his mother, with whom he repeatedly comes into conflict. Contributing to this is the fact that he has to deal with anti-Semitic hostility again and again and accordingly tries in places to distance himself from this part of his life and thus also from his parents, who proudly and publicly deal with their origins.

At the same time Spielberg's portrayal of his childhood and just especially his parents is always a very fascinating one. Where one might quickly assume a very nostalgically transfigured and clichéd plot about a dreamy little filmmaker reaching for the stars, The Fabelmans often offers rather the opposite. Although the film has a fundamentally positive tone and, of course, to a certain extent nostalgic flashbacks to his childhood, Spielberg is always very critical and hard on himself and his parents. For the imprint that the years of strife and the eventual divorce of his parents had on him and his personality is very clear again and again. At the same time, Sam's sometimes unfair anger at his mother for the failure of the marriage is the focus of the film, which at no point tries to gloss over or even justify.

The role of Sam is superbly embodied by young Gabriell LaBelle, who does a fantastic job, as do all the child actors in the film. Michelle Williams and Paul Dano also shine in the roles of Sam's parents, who manage to bring these two multi-layered and very special characters to life in an incomparable way, with Williams also being justifiably nominated for an Oscar for Best Actress in a Leading Role . For although both characters are anchored in clear archetypes (Sam's father as a rather rational and pragmatic engineer and his mother as a dreamy and somewhat eccentric artist) and could very quickly have slipped into the cliché direction, these performances manage to give the two a genuineness and closeness that parents in coming-of-age films take anything but for granted.

"Movies are dreams that you never forget," Sam's mother tells him, just before his first trip to the movies. And indeed, The Fabelmans reminds you, should you have forgotten in the first place, how magical movies can actually be. Be it in the form of the love and work Sam puts into his films, or in the form of the fantastic storytelling The Fabelmans itself displays.