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The Fabelmans (A Movie Review)


Starring Michelle Williams, Paul Dano, Seth Rogen, Gabriel LaBelle, Judd Hirsch, Julia Butters, Sophia Kopera, Keeley Karsten, Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord, Birdie Borria, Alina Brace, Jeannie Berlin, Robin Bartlett, Sam Rechner, Oakes Fegley, Chloe East, Isabelle Kusman, Chandler Lovelle, Gustavo Escobar, Nicolas Cantu, Cooper Dodson and David Lynch.

Screenplay by Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner.

Directed by Steven Spielberg.

Distributed by Universal Pictures. 151 minutes. Rated PG-13.

Steven Spielberg has been telling the world stories for over 50 years now, but he’s never really told his story. Oh, sure, like with any screenwriter little autobiographical nuggets are inevitable in anything that he writes, however The Fabelmans appears to be the first film that seems to be specifically based on his childhood and young adulthood.

Which is not to say that The Fabelmans is a straight biography either – no one really knows how close it is to accurate other than the filmmaker himself. However, it certainly does appear that with this film Spielberg is telling a more specifically personal story than he ever has before. Perhaps a slightly idealized version of his young life, however it seems to be hitting closer to home than he normally does.

After watching his career for so long, it’s nice to get this kind of context.

Spielberg’s avatar in this story is Sammy Fabelman (played by Gabriel LaBelle as a teen and Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord as a young boy), a slightly nerdy Jewish boy who early on gains a fascination with film when his parents took him to see The Greatest Story Ever Told. He is particularly intrigued by the train crash scene and quickly tries to recreate it with his model trains.

He lives in a crowded, exuberant home with his parents (Paul Dano and Michelle Williams) and three sisters. Dad is a brilliant computer scientist, smart and giving but rather buttoned down. Mom is an artist – she was on the trajectory of becoming a concert pianist when she gave it up for family life – and more than a little bit eccentric. Also always in the family’s orbit was Benny (Seth Rogen), mom and dad’s best friend.

Little of great drama happens in The Fabelmans, except of course for the drama of everyday life – divorces, bullying, first crushes, family conflicts, and of course a young man finding his passion in life.

The Fabelmans is a tribute to Hollywood in the 1950s and 1960s in a much subtler way that say Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood, but the love and respect for the place and time is the same. And, frankly, The Fabelmans is a better film than Once Upon A Time.

Which is not to say that the story is not somewhat idealized, undoubtedly. But that’s okay, we don’t need to see a warts and all portrait. And there are certain hard truths – particularly his parent’s divorce – which are very personal. It’s a subject which Spielberg has sort of tinkered with going back to Close Encounters of the Third Kind and ET: The Extraterrestrial. As one of my fellow critics said at the screening for The Fabelmans, it’s interesting to see that subtext be shown more in context.

The Fabelmans may not be exactly true to Steven Spielberg’s life, however it’s nice to get a glimpse at the man behind the curtain.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2022 All rights reserved. Posted: November 23, 2022.

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