I must begin my review of The Fabelmans with the disclaimer that I am a sucker for Steven Spielberg and have been ever since I saw Duel (1971) on TV as a kid. There was a possibility that I would not like The Fabelmans, but it was a very remote possibility. Loosely based on Spielberg’s life, it’s a movie about the love of movies, and it’s perhaps the movie he’s created that he cares about most. If Schindler’s List (1993) was the film he made for his mother, and Saving Private Ryan (1998) for his father, then The Fabelmans is for Spielberg himself. It’s not for us to determine whether this film is therapeutic, confessional, or simply getting rid of the monkey on his back (no pun intended if you’ve seen the film; a spoiler if you haven’t). It’s simply for us to enjoy.
Anyone who knows anything about Spielberg knows that his family had issues. We see this in the film’s establishing scene set in 1952 as young Sammy Fabelman (Mateo Zoryan Francis-DeFord) is not convinced going to a movie theater to see The Greatest Show on Earth is a good idea. He’s frightened of the enormity of it all (a concept that will be explored again later in the film), yet his parents, Burt (Paul Dano) and Mitzi (Michelle Williams) convince him that he’s going to have a great time.
Sammy is absolutely mesmerized by the movie, especially the train derailing sequence, so much so that Sammy’s parents buy him an expensive train set. But Sammy doesn’t want to play with trains. He wants to recreate blowing them up like the scene from the film.
This is a crucial moment early in the picture, but it also suggests larger overarching themes that will become equally crucial during the film's 151-minute running time. Spielberg has had decades to dwell upon (or be haunted by?) ideas of art vs. making a living, being a driven individual vs. sacrificing for family, and more. It’s not a mistake that we aren’t aware that Sammy has other siblings until several scenes into the film.
Sammy’s parents are clearly at odds as to what direction he should take in his life. His dad, who thrives in the tech/corporate world, wants stability and security for Sammy. But Mitzi, herself a former concert pianist, encourages Sammy to explore his love of the arts. Burt and Mitzi disagree on other issues as well, and when things finally come to a head, the performances of Williams and Dano deliver impact in a way that lesser actors could not.
Teenage Sammy goes through the typical trials and tribulations of adolescents - young love, bullying from the jocks at school, dealing with his younger siblings, and more, but Spielberg primarily paints Sammy as an enormously talented outsider, a theme Spielberg pushes a little too hard a little too often. Yet all of this is presented in a way that avoids stereotypes and rises above the tropes we normally see. Sammy’s first kiss with a classmate named Monica (Chloe East) is one you won’t forget, and I’ve never witnessed a scene quite like the one in which Sammy is confronted by two students who are enraged over his documentary short which was screened at the school prom.
Most of all, Spielberg’s love of movies and his unrelenting desire to keep making them comes through, especially during Sammy’s homemade movies, one of which captures a startling revelation that changes everything. These are wonderful moments, making us remember why we fell in love with movies in the first place.
The performances in the film are tremendous, especially from Williams and Dano, but there’s much more. Seth Rogen is outstanding as Bennie Loewy, Burt’s co-worker and best friend, and several others (including Julia Butters as Sammy’s sister Reggie) are excellent. Everyone knows that David Lynch practically steals the film as John Ford, but God bless Judd Hirsch as Boris, Sammy’s granduncle, in a performance that just tore my heart out.
So Steven Spielberg did it to me again. I told you I’m a sucker for Spielberg. I suspect I’m not alone. I'll have more to say on this film in the near future, so stay tuned.