A film review by Craig J. Koban December 26, 2022


2022, PG-13, 151 mins.

Gabriel LaBelle as Sammy Fabelman  /  Michelle Williams as Mitzi Fabelman  /  Paul Dano as Burt Fabelman  /  Seth Rogen as Benny Loewy  /  Judd Hirsch as Uncle Boris  /  Julia Butters as Reggie Fabelman  /  Jeannie Berlin as Haddash Fabelman  /  Robin Bartlett as Tina Schildkraut  /  Keeley Karsten as Natalie Fabelman  /  Sophia Kopera as Lisa Fabelman  /  Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord as Younger Sammy Fabelman  /  Birdie Borria as Younger Reggie Fabelman  /  Alina Brace as Young Natalie  /  Sam Rechner as Logan Hall  /  Oakes Fegley as Chad Thomas  /  Chloe East as Monica Sherwood  /  Isabelle Kusman as Claudia Denning  /  Gabriel Bateman as Roger

Directed by Steven Spielberg  /  Written by Spielberg and Tony Kushner



I remember when I was five-years-old and my father took me to biggest cinema that Saskatoon had to offer so I could watch the original STAR WARS for the first time.  When I sat in that movie palace I felt like I was on hallowed ground.  The curtains rose (they don't do that in multiplexes anymore!), John Williams' opening fanfare blasted out of the sound system, and then that staggeringly awe-inspiring opening shot came with that tiny Rebel cruiser attempting to flee from the Empire's unfathomably long Star Destroyer in hot pursuit.  For the first time in my life I felt transported to a different time and place and forgot I was in a theater.  

That's the power of the movies. 

Steven Spielberg's THE FABELMANS features an opening sequence that made me fondly think back to that early filmgoing experience.  We see a young Sammy Fabelman (Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord)  being taken to the cinema by his parents, Mitzi (Michelle Williams) and Burt (Paul Dano).  They're off to see Cecile B. DeMille's Oscar winning THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH in a Golden Age era movie palace that dwarfs the one I just mentioned from my childhood.  When five-year-old Sammy sees the film's massive train wreck scene he's equal parts terrified and mesmerized.  As a way of dealing with his conflicting feelings about the incredible sight that he witnessed, he decides to recreate the set-piece at home right down to every meticulous detail with his own model train set and film it with the family's 8mm film camera.  It's at this point when Sammy comes to realize - at least as far as his youthful mind could grasp - that there's a definitive art and process to filmmaking.  And it's also at this point when he realizes that he fell in love with the cinema and wanted to devout his life to it. 

It's of no secret or coincidence that Spielberg very famously has revealed in interviews over the years that THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH was the very first film that he saw theatrically as a child, and his 33rd film behind the camera in THE FABELMANS is - for all intents and purposes - a coming of age drama that's a semi-autobiographical portrait of the acclaimed director's own childhood, family life, and growing up with the medium that would come to define him later as an adult.  Young Sammy Fabelman is clearly a stand-in for Spielberg, and we see through him how his obsession with movies not only drove him to peruse it as a career, but also served as a form of therapy to deal with all of the woes of adolescence on top of existing in what would become a dysfunctional family (Spielberg has dedicated the film to both of his parents, who divorced in real life and have since died respectively in 2017 and 2020).  As a headfirst dive into the nostalgic waters of the 50s and 60s, THE FABELMANS is most assuredly warm and inviting.  That, and because it's essentially about himself, Spielberg's newest effort just might be his most heartfelt and personal of his career.  THE FABELMANS could accurately be described as a pure vanity project, and there are moments when the director's screenplay (his first since 2001's A.I. and co-written by his MUNICH, LINCOLN, and WEST SIDE STORY scribe Tony Kushner) perhaps soft pedals the more troubling aspects of his life, leaving the film feeling a bit too sweet and sugary for its own good.  But as a thoughtful, frequently hilarious, and heartfelt love letter to the movies and mythmakers behind them, THE FABELMANS is an undeniably enjoyable and well crafted ode.    

This film also reminded me of two things: (1) TV's THE WONDER YEARS (in terms of looking back on a child growing into a teenager during past decades of fundamental change and while facing life's roadblocks along the way) and (2) Kenneth Branagh's BELFAST, which was also a semi-autobiographical look at his upbringing, albeit during the historical upheaval of The Troubles in Northern Ireland.  After THE FABELMANS opens in 1952 and introduces us to Sammy, his family and his fateful night out at the movies, the story segues to the lad's early and primitive pursuits with experimenting with cameras to make his own home movies.  We also learn of the family dynamics too, like the fact that Mitzi is a talented former concert pianist that decided to become a homemaker while her hubby in Burt aggressively focused on his career as a scientist to help various tech giants achieve dominance.  The New Jersey based clan are one of the few of Jewish faith in the neighborhood, leaving them feeling slightly like social outcasts, but they do have love and support from one of Burt's long-time work partners and BFFs in Benny (Seth Rogen), who becomes a surrogate uncle for Burt's kids.  Because Mitzi has an appreciation for the arts, Sammy feels constantly nurtured by her for his directorial passions, whereas the pragmatist in Burt sees it as just a phase that he'll grow out of soon. 



When Burt gets a lucrative job in Phoenix and uproots the family there we see the teenage Sammy (now played by a sensational Gabriel LaBelle) really get the intense filmmaking bug as he begins to seriously partake in ever increasingly complex short films (with help from his fellow Boy Scouts, he makes a World War II production that's thanklessly ambitious and well executed considering the meager resources available).  Unfortunately, all is not well with the Fabelmans, especially with Mitzi, who seems to be battling depression and an unhealthy bond with Benny.  Burt would once again move everyone, this time to Northern California, for yet another job prospect, but this places even more stress on the family, most notably for Mitzi and Sammy.  At school, he's ruthlessly bullied by his anti-Semitic classmates, which - on a positive - allows for him to lose himself in the movies even more to help deal with his pain and misery.  Predictably, Burt is having issues with his son's insistence of doing something with his talents versus seeking out a productive career in the sciences, whereas Mitzi has become so riddled by her bipolar disorder that massive cracks begin to form in this once tightly knit family unit.   

THE FABELMANS simultaneously feels like it's walking on well established genre ground as far as routine coming of age stories go while also separating itself in the sense that it's about the director himself wistfully looking back on what inspired him in his youth.  Much of Sammy's story is fictionalized, yes, but many other elements presented here mirror Spielberg's own background, especially when it comes to cementing his love for cinema, dealing with family issues, and ultimately soldiering on past a nerve wracking divorce of his parents.  THE FABELMANS is a story of young love, but instead of boy gets girl it's boy gets movies, and we're dealt up Sammy's early attraction and flirtation with this foreign medium that later gives way to abandonment and then renewed infatuation as he's struggling through high school despair.  I wouldn't necessarily say that Spielberg's handling of this highly relevant material is dramatically and penetratingly deep, but there's absolutely a level of artistic catharsis for him - being one of the most well known and cherished populist filmmakers of his generation - in digging into his family roots and dramatizing his formative teen years to get to the heart of what drove him to become a director in the first place.  There's a fable-like tone that permeates the on-the-nose titled THE FABELMANS, and the director's lens is certainly rose tinted to a large degree, but this film wisely understands and relays the power of movies in unheard of ways.  Sammy's little productions don't just entertain, but they actually influence people around him (sometimes for better or worse) on top of shielding the maker from daily pains of growing up.  There's more to the movies that just pointing the camera and telling stories; there's a genuine psychological component as well for the way they work on viewers. 

The notion of wasted talent is delivered to Sammy early on with the appearance of his Uncle Boris (played in an all too brief, but brilliant cameo by Judd Hirsch), who was a former circus performer that - during one passionately rendered monologue in the film's best scene - informs Sammy that he has an obligation to develop his abilities with the camera and not squander them.  Moreover, a dedication to the arts will cause rifts with those he loves (which do manifest later for Sammy), but it's this very conflict that plagues all artists in all fields (think with great power comes great responsibility).  That's not to say that Sammy's parents are painted in a negative light, though.  Both Burt and Mitzi are afforded individual depth (despite their obvious faults).  Mitzi sacrificed her own pursuit of the arts to stay home and raise her kids and she does so with a caring zest, but at the expense of her own happiness and self-actualization.  And it would be easy to label Burt as the de facto villain here for not fully encouraging his kid's dreams, but he too is driven by a larger accountability to better himself and support his family to the fullest.  Dano is really good in a very delicate and tricky role; he's a soft spoken patriarch of the household that's proud of his career, but that often conflicts with his fatherly intuitions at times, not to mention his role as a supporting husband.  Williams gives the juicier (and depending on your response, arguably the showier and more theatrically broad) performance as the beleaguered mother that mightily struggles with mental illness, marital fidelity, and encouraging her son in his filmmaking. 

Still, quite a bit of what transpires in THE FABELMANS seems more than a bit storybook idealized (I'm quite sure that this was intentional on Spielberg's part in an effort to not offend any members of his living family), but it's clear that THE FABELMANS sometimes fails to have any dramatic grit or weighty substance.  Take, for instance, Sammy's very peculiar romance with a local Christian high school girl (Chloe East), who hopes to show her new boyfriend the real pleasures of loving Jesus (their scenes are cute, quite funny, and more than a bit silly, but perhaps are too contrived and sitcomy).  Then there's the nature of Sammy having to confront the toxic abuse he gets from his school's WASPY Christians, who initially aren't afforded much depth beyond being crude one-note bullies (I'm not trying to condone their actions at all, but the handling of this subplot - and last minute confrontation between Sammy and one of these abusers - doesn't pay off authentically in the slightest).  THE FABELMANS deals with ample dark material beyond the persecution of its Jewish characters, but Spielberg seems too reticent to revisit it with the right amount of angst.  Even the subplot involving Mitzi's uncomfortably close relationship with Benny (a decent, but somewhat miscast and out of his element Rogen) doesn't really build to the type of crescendos as it should considering the crucial stakes involved.  The film really lets this character off the hook, almost too much to be believed. 

It could be said that - at a ripe, but still amazingly productive and prolific 75-years-old - a director as revered in the industry as Spielberg can make any type of film he wants now, and - to be fair - these are his memories up on screen, so he can take any approach he desires with it.  Having said that, his approach - which dabbles between carefree whimsicality and heartbreaking pathos - seems to be at odds throughout the film's heavily padded and kind of self-indulgent 150-plus minutes.  For the most part, I enjoyed watching THE FABELMANS, but I wished that Spielberg dug a bit deeper into this highly self-reflective material.  He does build to a superb - and hilarious - finale, featuring Sammy on the verge of adulthood and a modest entrance into a career in the industry that has him getting some expletive riddled and frank advice from an old and cantankerous, but legendary filmmaker (whose identity - and the person playing him - I won't reveal).  This culminates to a final shot that's a pitch perfectly engineered sight gag.  As a movie lover, I applauded moments like that, and a lot of what THE FABELMANS had to offer resonated with me, despite me feeling that this is ultimately second tier (at best) Spielberg in action.  Granted, a lower register Spielberg behind the camera is a hell of a lot better than most other filmmakers have to offer these days.  And the film serves as a recruitment tool for prospective directors to follow their hearts and tackle their dreams...oh...and be mindful with horizon lines.  

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