"The Fabelmans" Review: Spielberg presents his own original story

In the opening moments of Steven Spielberg’s The Fabelmans, the young Sammy (Mateo Zoryan) stands outside a theater marquee with his two parents. He’s scared. His father Burt (Paul Dano) helps to assuage his concerns by explaining what a motion picture is while his mother Mitzi (Michelle Williams) calms him down with a more imaginative response. “Movies are dreams that you never forget,” she says.

When Sammy watches the film, he’s not scared anymore. He’s inspired.

Based on events from Spielberg’s own youth, the drama (which he co-wrote with Tony Kushner) reveals how the awe-inspired youngster staring at the big movie screen became a teenager (played by Gabriel Labelle) enamored with the craft of filmmaking. The dichotomy between Sammy’s parents plays a major role in the story but the film focuses more on Sammy’s journey towards becoming a filmmaker.

The story’s first hour focuses on Sammy falling in love with the medium. In the first hour, Sammy learns about the craft and starts making movies, becoming a better and better filmmaker as he ages. This hour plays like classic Spielberg with the director’s affection for filmmaking bursting through the screen with a look a wonderful look behind the scenes at making movies. The second hour features more introspective scenes as Sammy seemingly realizes how films (even short movies about a camping trip or playful ones celebrating a skip day at school) can affect people in ways he might never have imagined. 

There’s a beauty in the proceedings here as Spielberg pulls back the curtain on filmmaking and invites the audience in. Not only is this his most personal film to date, it’s also the one that brings audiences behind the scenes of what goes into making a movie. Some of the best scenes here show hint at how directors overcome some of the obstacles they face. It’s in these scenes that the audience could fall in love with filmmaking in the same way that Sammy does.

From a revealing scene about how Sammy capture gunshots on camera to an earnest sequence where Sammy speaks to a soldier's motivations after a heartbreaking battle sequence, Spielberg lets the audience see a more personal side of filmmaking.

There’s a temptation to see The Fabelmans as a key that could help unlock some of Spielberg’s family secrets. There are obvious nods here to Spielberg’s earlier projects. Instead of distracting the audience with winks and overwhelming references to the director’s filmography though, these nods serve the story itself. There’s nothing here that hits the audience over the head. Instead, the film hints at the filmmaker that Sammy (and ultimately Spielberg) is going to become.

Even though the film focuses on the childhood of one character, the script manages to speak to larger issues about something much bigger. From Burt’s insistence on responsibility for understanding the value of things (“You can’t just love something. You need to take care of it”) to the battles artists face when caught between their families and their own passions, The Fabelmans focuses on big things even as it depicts one person’s journey.

Although the feature is full of great performances from Michelle Williams to Judd Hirsch, it’s driven by the performances of the awe-inspired youngster Sammy (Zoryan) and the teenager played by LaBelle.  In a difficult role (playing a version of Spielberg in a picture directed by the Oscar winner is no easy task), LaBelle creates a wonderful character who, despite himself, can’t stay away from following his dream for too long.

The Fabelmans isn’t just a great ode to the magic of cinema. It’s a film that pulls back the curtain on Spielberg and shows part of what inspired him to become the great filmmaker he is today.

The Fabelmans is now available on Blu-Ray and DVD. It can be purchased by clicking here.

John Hanlon is a film and television critic. This article was published here with his permission. All rights reserved. 



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