Movie Review: The Fabelmans

While Steven Spielberg has been one of the most financially successful and prolific directors of all time, perhaps responsible for more movies that are permanently ingrained into the public consciousness than anybody else, he hasn’t ever attempted to tell his own story before. Bits and pieces of some of his prior films were inspired by memories of his past, as evidenced by visual references to them scattered throughout this film, but none were ever as explicitly autobiographical as The Fabelmans. Which makes it immediately interesting to get such a close look at the moments in his youth that he considered to be especially formative, even if it is still a somewhat fictionalized telling.

Given their importance in his life, it’s no surprise that this film opens with young Spielberg stand-in Sammy Fabelman (Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord) being taken by his parents Mitzi (Michelle Williams) and Burt (Paul Dano) to see his first movie, The Greatest Show on Earth. After becoming enraptured by what he sees, a train crash sequence in particular, he finds himself in love with the artform and before you know it is making little movies starring his younger sisters. When computer engineer Burt is offered a new job, the family along with close friend Bennie (Seth Rogen) move from New Jersey to Arizona.

We next see Sammy as a teenager (Gabriel LaBelle), who along with his friends from the Boy Scouts is still making movies with increasingly elaborate homemade special effects. After the death of her mother, Burt asks Sammy to try to cheer Mitzi up by making a movie out of the footage he shot during a recent family camping trip. But then they are all surprised by a visit from Mitzi’s uncle Boris (Judd Hirsch), a lovably eccentric character who has worked in the circus and the film industry who offers some advice before departing. When Sammy edits the movie as his father requested, he discovers a secret about his family that disturbs him greatly and continues to cause conflict among the group even after they relocate again, this time to California, so his father can get a better job at IBM.

This is effectively two different stories happening concurrently and playing off of each other. The first shows us how a young boy fell in love with the movies and set about doing everything he could to be involved in their creation. This half is filled with the sort of nostalgic wonder that Spielberg’s biggest hits are known for and is a constant delight to watch. The second story is about a woman in a seemingly happy marriage straining against the still ever present need to follow her own dreams and the effect that has on herself and her family. This is where the real emotional heft of the film comes from and it is ably anchored by an as-always excellent performance by Michelle Williams, who is often tasked with portraying several shifting emotions in the same scene. These two elements mesh well together, each working to keep the film from becoming too dark or too light while also examining how much they can affect each other.

Given the strength of her performance it would be easy to think of this as being Williams’ movie, and she is certainly one of the most memorable parts of it, but Dano is also in top form as Burt and both actors who portray Sammy do good work here, with LaBelle in particular standing out. While he is only in the movie briefly, Judd Hirsch makes the most of his time and truly leaves a mark on the story. I can’t attest to just how much of what Spielberg and co-screenwriter Tony Kushner present to us here is true, but it’s clear that the director feels very connected to the material and has put lots of love into every frame. It does feel like it possibly could have been a little shorter but given the personal nature of the project it’s an easy excess to overlook. Using his childhood memories to talk about family, passion, and art means it leaves us with plenty to think about, but as usual with his movies the thing we walk away remembering the most is just how good it is. ★★★★★

RATED PG-13 for SOME STRONG LANGUAGE, THEMATIC ELEMENTS, BRIEF VIOLENCE, AND DRUG USE.

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★★★★★ = Excellent | ★★★★ = Very Good | ★★★ = Good | ★★ = Fair | ★ = Poor

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