‘The Fabelmans’ Review: Steven Spielberg’s Deeply Moving Childhood Memoir (2024)

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Immediately joining the first ranks of artists’ memoirs, Steven Spielberg‘s The Fabelmans is both a vivid capturing of the auteur’s earliest flashes of filmmaking insight and a portrait, full of love yet unclouded by nostalgia, of the family that made him.

Brought to life by heart-grabbing performances from Michelle Williams, Paul Dano and relative newcomer Gabriel LaBelle, it brims with compassion and understanding for both of his parents, whose divorce split their tight-knit family when he was a teen.

The Fabelmans

The Bottom LineA transporting look back, full of empathy and discovery.

Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Special Presentations)
Release date: November 23 (Universal Pictures)
Cast: Michelle Williams, Paul Dano, Seth Rogen, Gabriel LaBelle, Judd Hirsch
Director: Steven Spielberg
Screenwriters: Steven Spielberg, Tony Kushner
Rated PG-13,2 hours 29 minutes

It begins with little Sammy Fabelman (Mateo Zoryan Francis-DeFord), about to see his first movie, standing apprehensively outside the cinema. He’s scared to go inside, where he’s heard the stories are told by giant people, and his parents (Mitzi and Burt, played by Williams and Dano) try to assuage his fears. Amid their soothing assurances, Burt crouches down and tries explaining persistence of vision to the child. Understanding should quash fear, thinks an engineer who believes his fascination with how things work is shared by others, and that’s a lesson Sammy learns inadvertently, through experience: Though he’s horrified by the violent train derailment in The Greatest Show on Earth, he’s also captivated, and is soon reenacting it on a train set he gets his dad to buy. He later masters that emotional response, learning he can own the violence by capturing it, from many angles, on the 8mm camera his mother gives him on the sly.

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Right away Sammy’s sisters become the eager cast of his first home-made movies. A story of horror at the dentist’s office and the adventures of toilet paper-wrapped mummies eventually give way to Westerns and war pictures starring the other members of Sammy’s Boy Scout troupe. The kid might be lifting bits of stories directly from the Hollywood movies he’s seeing, but he’s making the technique up for himself. Chiding himself that the shootout in one of his Westerns is “fake, totally fake,” he discovers that poking a tiny hole in the film will create a flash of light evoking a gunshot. Even Burt’s impressed by that.

The teenage Sammy (LaBelle) grows obsessed with cameras and editing equipment. We don’t see him read comic books, watch TV or play records (we hardly even see him in a movie theater); if he’s consuming such things, the movie might imply, they don’t matter until they’ve been digested and put into his movies.

Most of this time is spent in Phoenix, a place with a surprisingly strong hold on Mitzi. A talented pianist whose hopes for a performing career ended two or three children ago, she models the dreamy and reckless aspects of artistic creation. Following her whims and enthusiasms greedily, she’s just off-kilter enough to occasionally call to mind Gena Rowlands in A Woman Under the Influence. As in that film, her literal-minded husband is deeply devoted to her even when she baffles him.

This is the kind of marriage that tempts one to take sides even before a conflict emerges. Some may see the film starting to lean that way, but the script (by Spielberg and Tony Kushner) has too much compassion for Burt to reduce him to a family-supporting robot. Burt has friends (Seth Rogen’s Benny, called Uncle by the kids), can be generous and truly appreciates the beauty his wife and son create. But he also has a foundational belief in the midcentury American ideal of a career, and wounds his son by continuing to describe moviemaking as his “hobby.”

That poisonous word meets antivenom with a surprise visit from Mitzi’s elderly uncle Boris (Judd Hirsch), a vagabond who worked in circuses and in Hollywood. Immediately recognizing a kindred spirit — or turning the boy into one — he delivers a stirring lesson about the conflict between loyalty to family and devotion to art. (Hirsch’s gracefully brusque exit from the screen earned one of two spontaneous rounds of applause during the premiere.)

Marital drama is already brewing when a better job leads Burt to move the family to Northern California. In his new school, Sammy deals with antisemitism and more general bullying, but he meets a girl: Monica, a Jesus freak played with lovably nutty devotion by Chloe East, is fascinated to meet a Jew, and her expressions of romantic interest take the form of joint prayer sessions in which he’s supposed to invite Christ into his heart. Though he’s been taking a traumatized break from making movies, he’s drawn back by the prospect of borrowing Monica’s father’s Arriflex to document the senior class’ field day at the beach.

Sammy has already started to understand how to direct novice actors and recreate dolly shots; editing his home movies, he’s learned that the camera sees things the human eye misses. Now he learns how social meaning can be constructed through camera angles and editing. The boys who’ve humiliated him are transformed by the film Sammy screens at the prom, and not only in ways we’d expect. Afterward, a gripping and surprising exchange shows the kid how, once it leaves your hands, art will mean things to others you didn’t intend and couldn’t have predicted. None of these lessons are expressed in dialogue; the action teaches them to us as well. But the look on Sammy’s face suggests it will take years to accept or hope to understand this last piece of wisdom.

Hard lessons about love await him as well. The movie ends as Mitzi and Burt are reluctantly divorcing, with Sammy staying in California with his dad. He’s started sending letters out in hopes of a job somewhere in the industry. It’s not looking great. But Burt offers a meaningful gesture of support, which opens the door to others; the movie’s closing scenes contain Sammy’s first, tentative encounter with real show business.

It’s easily one of the best endings in Spielberg’s filmography — if anyone tries to tell you about it, shut them up — and it foreshadows a passing of the torch that will turn the industry upside down. But all that lies in the future, and The Fabelmans takes a moment to savor the uncertainty and hope between the imagining of a career and its astonishing realization.

‘The Fabelmans’ Review: Steven Spielberg’s Deeply Moving Childhood Memoir (2024)

FAQs

What is the message of the Fabelmans movie? ›

The most prominent subtextual theme in The Fabelmans is the need for control. This is even stated at the beginning of the film by Spielberg's mother (Sammy's mother).

What is the storyline of the Fabelmans? ›

The plot is told through an original story of the fictional Sammy Fabelman, a young aspiring filmmaker who explores how the power of films can help him see the truth about his dysfunctional family and those around him.

Is the Fabelmans worth seeing? ›

John Williams as always provides a perfect score and the visuals are superb. Overall it's worth seeing for a little insight into Spielberg's childhood but there is an unsatisfactory feel to the film as a whole. I think it could have been so much better.

What is the movie message about? ›

What does the ending of The Fabelmans mean? ›

The ending for Sammy is actually a beginning. Sammy will grow up to become a legendary filmmaker like Steven Spielberg, and everything that happened in The Fabelmans will allow him to one day put the story of his childhood into a feature film.

Did Spielberg's mom marry his uncle? ›

At age 16, he learned that his mother was in love with a close family friend, whom Spielberg regarded as an uncle. Spielberg's mother and his father Arnold would eventually divorce; Leah married that family friend, Bernie Adler, in 1967.

Is Fabelmans based on a true story? ›

The Fabelmans: Steven Spielberg's real life story that inspired his latest film. THE FABELMANS IS STEVEN SPIELBERG'S INTIMATE, SEMI-BIOGRAPHICAL NEW FILM. THIS 2023 OSCAR NOMINEE IS A POIGNANT STORY, SOMEWHERE BETWEEN FICTION AND REALITY.

Why is it called The Fabelmans? ›

“So I wanted to find some of that meaning. I thought of the German word fabel, which I've always liked, which means fable or story. And since the film is largely inspired by Steven's life, but has fictional elements, I thought Fabelman was a perfect nod to that.”

Who is Logan in The Fabelmans? ›

Sam Rechner is an Australian actor. He is best known for playing Logan Hall in the Steven Spielberg film The Fabelmans (2022).

What role did Michelle Williams play in The Fabelmans NYT? ›

With “The Fabelmans,” the Oscar-nominated actress, Michelle Williams, moved from naturalism to a more stylized performance as Mitzi, a character Spielberg based on his own mother. (Quotes lightly edited for space.)

What rating is The Fabelmans? ›

Rated PG-13 for some strong language, thematic elements, brief violence and drug use.

What is the message of the film Paperman? ›

Kahrs uses Paperman to present a new and unique thought process on life and love at first sight, encouraging the viewers to not overlook the little things that happen in life, but rather to take notice of what could be mundane and find the beauty in the unexpected.

Why did Spielberg use the name Fabelmans? ›

The idea for the last name of Fabelman came from screenwriter Tony Kushner. He was inspired by Spielberg's translation. “Spiel in Yiddish means a speech or a play. I always thought it was crazy that this man was this storyteller like you meet one every century and that he had this name,” says Tony Kushner.

What does the movie her teach us? ›

Love, empathy, and feelings are not a priority. We don't have time for them. But in the movie “Her,” we see an example of how technology can help us find love through the artificial intelligence system that Theodore falls in love with. He finds a companion, a friend, a lover in a computer program.

What is the moral lesson of the movie Magnifico? ›

The moral of the movie was all about serving others with love without conditions. The film showed a typical Filipino household, and from there, we can easily determine what needs to be remedied and develop in order to build a happy and healthy relationships within the family.

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