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 RogerDirected 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.
power of the movies.
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
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
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.
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
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
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
That's not to say that Sammy's parents are painted in a negative
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
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
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.