The Fabelmans



Director: Steven Spielberg
Writers: Steven Spielberg, Tony Kushner
Cast: Michelle Williams, Paul Dano, Gabriel LaBelle, Seth Rogen, Judd Hirsch, Keeley Karsten, Julia Butters, Mateo Zoryan

Part of the job for the majority of filmmakers is to see people, to really see them and see their relationships, their innermost selves, and to tell their stories to us, the audience. We then often turn what the filmmakers see onto ourselves and reflect on the meaning and maybe even relate to certain aspects. Of course, this doesn’t go for every movie we see, but certainly for the majority of dramas out there it’s par for the course. Spielberg has not only gone down the route of an introspective drama, but it’s an introspective on himself, his family, and his life/their lives while he was growing up (to his early twenties). Have his efforts been worthwhile, or are we just seeing another filmmaker become autobiographical with no real intent?

The Fabelmans is a coming-of-age story, Spielberg’s first of this kind, according to him, that is very much based on his experiences growing up in a Jewish household, wanting to be a filmmaker and dealing with his parents’ divorce. After seeing his first movie, Cecil B. DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth in 1952, young Sammy (Zoryan) is transfixed, particularly by the special effects used in the train crash scene. He convinces his father, Burt (Dano), to buy him a train set for Hannukah, and uses Burt’s camera to record his own version of the crash scene. From then on, Sammy is hardly without a camera in his hands. As he grows to his teen years, Sammy (LaBelle) dedicates much of his time making pictures, often to his father’s chagrin. As time goes by, Sammy finds himself noticing more and more about his friends and family, particularly his eccentric mother, Mitzi (Williams). Eventually he finds himself at a crossroads at that point in life where young people begin to realise their parents are people too, a realisation that brings a whole host of adult problems to Sammy’s life.

Let me preface this by filling you in a little on Steven Spielberg. I am sure you know him as one of the greatest filmmakers in the history of cinema, but to add to that, he was born in December 1946, making him 76-years-old at the time of writing (this is a fact I refuse to believe as in my mind he has and always will be 40-something and will always be making movies until the day I die). One might say he has certainly lived long enough to be able to look back on his own life and decide if it’s worth making a movie about, or at least a section of his life. In fact, it took his sister, Anne, years of bugging him (and his parents, eventually, before their respective passings), before he finally sat down to write this movie along with writing partner Tony Kushner. One might argue we have the pandemic and lack of movies being physically made to thank for the creation of the screenplay, as that is when Spielberg finally took the time to write The Fabelmans.

Spielberg has a great eye for stories, as a director and writer, and it can’t be an easy task to look back on yourself and those who are/were closest to you and write about particular people and events, but complete the task he did and very honestly and realistically; there is truly a lot of meaty detail that Spielberg was able to get into. There’s so much for even the average person to relate to, and it’s not necessarily some rags-to-riches, “how I became so successful” kind of story that many (auto)biographical tales are based on. It’s about an average family navigating their struggles and figuring out how to traverse their own wants and needs during times of upheaval without bringing down a world of hurt on those around them. I imagine the process was an emotional one for Spielberg and his family, but it was worth it for what we see onscreen in The Fabelmans. It doesn’t matter if you’re Jewish or not, a wannabe filmmaker or not, an only child or one of many – there is something almost everyone can relate to in this film, and Spielberg’s own authentic introspection will likely cause introspection for many of his viewers, too. It’s an in-depth glimpse into an incredibly private time of his and his family’s lives, with events occuring that would likely remain private for most people, but Spielberg is a filmmaker, and ultimately, he knows a good story, a relatable, human story, when he sees one. I also think it will be inspiring to any young aspiring filmmakers, particularly those who may be going through a hard time.

With a project like this, particularly one so personal for the lead filmmaker, casting is crucial. LaBelle is excellent as teen/young adult Sammy, able to dig into the range of emotion needed for a teenager going through so much while trying to grow, and there’s definitely a sense that Spielberg collaborated closely with LaBelle to ensure a level of authenticity. Likewise, Williams as Mitzi, a fictionalised version of Spielberg’s mother Leah, is fantastic in her performance, and it comes as little surprise that she has multiple award nominations for her performance, including the big one, Best Actress at the Academy Awards. Dano has an understated performance as Burt, based on Spielberg’s father Arnold, a quiet presence that often goes unnoticed, which I assume is purposeful due to the nature of the character. Much of the younger performers also round out the ensemble nicely, providing much of the emotional pinballing that occurs for Sammy. Rogen’s performance as friend-of-the-family Bennie adds to Williams’ in giving Mitzi her reasons to be as expressive as she is, and although Hirsch has little screen time, his performance as Mitzi’s uninvited Uncle Boris is also well-decorated with many award nominations.

Not only is the casting crucial on such a personal project, but so is working with a crew that one is comfortable and familiar with. Spielberg reunites with the great John Williams on the score, a project Williams says is sure to be his penultimate before retiring (he is scheduled to score the final Indiana Jones movie, which will also mark his 30th collaboration with Spielberg), and as always, Williams’ music provides the perfect accompaniment to every scene in this movie (Williams is another artist whom I believe will outlive me, despite being a nonagenarian already). Other frequent collaborators of Spielberg’s who worked on this movie include cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, editors Sarah Broshar and Michael Kahn, and not to mention writer/produced Kushner. All of these creatives will certainly have made Spielberg more comfortable in telling his story and having it come across the right way, and the commitment and care that went into it certainly shines onscreen.

It’s not often that you’ll watch an autobiographical film that doesn’t come across as somewhat pretentious, exaggerated and/or unrelatable with “fictionalised scenes for entertainment”, and although, yes, they are entertaining, there’s not a lot to take away or remember in the long-term. The Fabelmans is quite the opposite: to use many words I’ve already used in this review, it’s authentic, it’s relatable, and luckily it is also entertaining, if someone’s memories, good and bad, can be adjectivised in such a way. If anyone was going to do something like this and do it well, it was always going to be Steven Spielberg. He has many amazing movies to his legacy, but I think this one will become a particular gem in his filmography, particularly if it manages to pick up any of the multiple awards (including a BAFTA and many Oscars) that it’s nominated for.

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