Steven Spielberg’s semi-autobiographical film, The Fabelmans, about his family and himself, is a love letter to a simpler time when adventure was something you sought out, passion was something you struggled for, and family was a constant. It is at once about his early inspirations as a filmmaker and a study of what was happening around him that he was perhaps too young to understand.
Utilizing the talents of playwright and screenwriter Tony Kushner (Angels in America, Lincoln), Spielberg co-writes a somewhat fictionalized version of his early years with truths sprinkled throughout. He opens when he is just a young boy (here named Sammy and played by Mateo Zoryon Francis-Deford) going to his first movie: The Greatest Show on Earth. Scared at first, his father (Paul Dano) tries to assuage his fears by explaining the tech behind moving pictures. At the same time, his mother (Michelle Williams) focuses on the magic of the images on the silver screen.
Inspired, Sammy decides he wants a train for Hanukkah, which he uses to overcome his fear of the train crash seen so prominently in his first movie-going experience. Then, his mother gets the idea of letting him film a fake crash so he can take some control over it, and as a result – a filmmaker is born.
But this isn’t all about Sammy’s desire to make movies. The Fabelmans is about a loving, tight-knit family that fractures as Sammy begins to take a closer look at them through the lens of his camera. His creative way of developing his own worlds becomes his way of seeing the truth around him. When he reaches his teenage years (now played by the incredible Gabriel LaBelle), he struggles with being in new schools, facing bullying for being Jewish, and watching his mother suffer depression.
It’s a heartfelt tale that doesn’t skirt some of the more demanding challenges of his early life, even when the story meanders a bit with its focus. The film is called The Fabelmans, but it squarely focuses on Sammy first, his mother second. His sisters get s bit short-changed, and when the film ends with Sammy’s entrance into Hollywood, you start to wonder if the film should have been called “Sammy Fabelman.”
As written by Spielberg and Kushner, there could have been a more distinct focus. You sometimes wonder where the movie is going because it’s pretty episodic. Side characters move in and out, like the dad’s best friend Bennie (Seth Rogen), who has a few telling scenes but gets lost in the family’s machinations – even though his character figures prominently in how the family falls apart.
Jeannie Berlin (a favorite of mine since I saw the little-known comedy In The Spirit in the ‘90s) plays Sammy’s judgmental grandmother to great comedic effect. And Judd Hirsch is memorable as Uncle Boris in his one big scene with Sammy.
Tech credits are, as expected, spectacular, with beautiful cinematography by Janusz Kaminski, a lovely score by John Williams, and spot-on production design by Rick Carter.
Spielberg dons some of his usual filmmaking trademarks but also tones them down so as not to distract from what is essentially a small-scale film about a family growing up in the 50s and 60s. You can feel his love for the family (his family) and his childhood – and what a gift to be able to go back and put his own history on screen. While it doesn’t always feel consistent, the story feels so personal it’s hard to complain about someone’s experience. Because as much as it was partially fictionalized, you can feel the truth in every frame.
Acting credits are, as expected, fantastic. Paul Dano plays the nerdy, logical, and overly technical father with the appropriate (sometimes misguided) parental love and a firm hand. Williams is hard to look away from, even when you feel her flexing her acting muscles. It’s an observation I’ve made for a while in that she’s so engaging, but you can also see her working, and I’m not always sure that’s a good thing.
The find here is Gabriel LaBelle. Not only is he a spectacular actor in his own right, but man, does he look like a young Spielberg. The filmmaker really scored with this one because it’s one thing to resemble the person he’s playing, but he’s incredible in the role to boot. There has already been Oscar talk about Hirsch and Williams, but I’d posit LaBelle as the film’s most valuable player.
In the end, The Fabelmans is a lovely story about observing your life through a different lens. It’s a sweet look back at the events that shaped you and a testament to sweeping away the nostalgia to see the hard truths you might have missed but that forever shaped your future.