THE FABELMANS – Review – We Are Movie Geeks



By  | 
Gabriel LaBelle as Sammy Fabelman, in THE FABELMANS, co-written, produced and directed by Steven Spielberg. Photo credit: Courtesy of Universal

In his semi-autobiographical film THE FABELMANS, director Steven Spielberg looks back on growing up and how he fell in love with movie-making, a remembrance told through the lens of his parents’ marriage. Of course, “semi-autobiographical” means not everything we see is true but the story is by turns funny, touching and heartbreaking, as Sammy Fabelman, the stand-in for young Spielberg, grows up while his determination to make movies also grows, and his parents’ marriage falls apart. The film features a stellar cast, including Paul Dano, Michelle Williams, Seth Rogen, and Judd Hirsch with a nice cameo by David Lynch. Spielberg co-wrote the script with Tony Kushner, who also co-wrote “Munich” with the director, and with music by John Williams, the stage is set for something wonderful – and we get exactly that.

There seems to be a spate of partly-biographical films from big-name directors in the last couple of years, maybe partly due to reflection during pandemic lock-down or just to reaching an age for looking back (Spielberg is now 75). This one joins Kenneth Branagh’s semi-autobiographical “Belfast” from last year and Sam Mendes’ partly-biographical ode to his mother, “Empire of Light.”

THE FABELMANS starts out with the family in 1950s New Jersey, as we meet 6-six-year-old Sammy Fabelman (Mateo Zoryon Francis-Deford) while he is standing in line with his parents Mitzi (Michelle Williams) and Burt (Paul Dano) to see his very first movie. However, young Sammy is not too sure about this experience because he is afraid of the dark. It does not help matters when his mother, in an effort to reassure him, describes movies as “like dreams” – which Sammy quickly notes can sometimes be scary. But his parents tell him the movie is about the circus, and Sammy loves the circus and clowns (in an earlier era when clowns were seen as harmless and funny rather than scary). And the movie? Cecil B. DeMille’s “The Greatest Show On Earth.” If you have seen this epic, you know it is less a light, happy comedy than a dramatic epic, with a showstopper scene of a circus train wreck.

Sammy’s parents obviously expected a more light-hearted movie (and what parent hasn’t made this kind of mistake?), so they are nervous about Sammy’s reaction after the show. Sammy does indeed seem stunned afterwards, but it is because he wants to know how they did that train-wreck scene. But Hanukkah is coming, and the lighting of the menorah candles, and Sammy gets an electric train set, one car at a time until the final piece, the transformer to power it all. Yup – train-wreck re-enactment is inevitable, and when his mother hands him a home movie camera so he can record it, the pattern is set.

Sammy’s fascination with making movies is encouraged actively by his artistic mother Mitzi, who even gives him his first movie camera, but it puzzles his science-inclined father Burt. The film follows Sammy’s early efforts at making movies, along with growing up with his three sisters (one a baby) and his parents. His brilliant engineer/inventor father Burt (Paul Dano) is working on the cutting edge of the nascent computer industry, developing the machines that will drive the future. His mother Mitzi (Michelle Williams) is a talented pianist but gave up her dreams of the concert stage to raise her family.

Scenes of little Sammy crashing his train and filming it with his dad’s home movie camera give way to more movie-making, often starring his older sisters, who seem to enjoy the process nearly as much as their brother.

Burt Fabelman’s soaring career takes the family from the suburbs of New Jersey, to Arizona, and then to northern California. Tagging along is fellow computer engineer Bennie Loewy (Seth Rogen), a family friend who is kind of an uncle to the kids as well as Burt’s co-worker in early computer research.

For anyone who grew up making little movies (or knew someone who did), this film is pure catnip. At the same time, this is a universal coming-of-age story for anyone who grew up in the later half of the 20th century. The film-making sequences are among the most fun, and punctuate the family’s story as well as illuminating young Sammy’s growth as he approaches adulthood. This beautifully constructed family story has humor and heart-break, and a winning coming-of-age story.

While scientist Burt is supportive of his son, he sees his son’s movie-making as a hobby, and something he will grow out of. It’s pretty clear Burt wants his son to follow in this footsteps but as much as Sammy loves his quiet, kindly father, he is just not the same. As a sister points out, Sammy doesn’t even like math, but he sure loves making movies. Dad’s gentle efforts to interest his son – in fact any of this children – in his world of science is often undermined by jokes by ever-present pal Bennie. Although Bennie is in the same nascent computer field as Burt, his playful, jokester temperament is more like Sammy’s mom Mitzi.

While the family’s Jewish identity is clear, it is not always at the forefront in the story and instead is integrated into it in a pleasingly natural way. Interestingly, the Fabelmans never seem to live in neighborhoods with many other Jewish families around, as they move from place to place. In New Jersey, they drive home after in winter through a subdivision full of houses decorated with Christmas lights, until they reach their own unlit house. Yet later, we see a festive menorah in the window, as extended family gathers to celebrate Hanukkah. Later in Arizona, we see both grandmothers visit them, Mitzi’s warm mother Tina Schildkraut (Robin Bartlett) and Burt’s more critical one, Hadassah Fabelman (Jeannie Berlin). But by the time the family reaches northern California, as Dad’s career is reaching the top, the family finds itself in very different territory, a place where, as Sammy comments, “there are hardly any Jews.” Here Sammy is confronted by open antisemitism, in the form of a hate-filled fellow student in high school.

Both Michelle Williams and Paul Dano are marvelous as Sammy’s parents, two good but mismatched people. Michelle Williams is particularly brilliant as Sammy’s artistic mother, in one of her best performances in a career of them. Mitzi is encouraging to her son while frustrated in her own life, and the two do not always get along. Paul Dano is surprisingly good in the less-showy, more-challenging role as Sammy’s quiet, kind, steady, more reserved father. Dano manages effectively the difficult job of portraying a man who, while not understanding his creative son’s passion for movie-making, ever-hopeful that he will grow out of it, and fearing for his financial future if he doesn’t, is still supportive and kindly towards him, even if he doesn’t understand, In fact, both actors present these people as good parents who put their children first, even as things between them are breaking down.

Two young actors play Sammy Fabelman, Mateo Zoryon Francis-Deford as little Sammy, and Gabriel LaBelle as the teenage Sammy. The former is cute but newcomer Gabriel LaBelle does a truly impressive job, delivering a fine, strong performance often laced with a dry humor. Also very good are the girls playing Sammy’s two older sisters, his companions in movie-making in his early attempts. Both Julia Butters as Sammy’s sister Reggie and Keeley Karsten as sister Natalie give appealing, effective performances.

Other supporting roles offer humor and more. Seth Rogen plays Bennie, a part largely based on Spielberg’s favorite uncle. Rogen’s Bennie is often silly but role isn’t always comic, as his constant presence sometimes disrupts serious Burt’s attempts to connect with his family, and Rogen does well in the part. Yet Bennie encourages also Sammy’s movie-making ambitions along with Mitzi, and he plays a crucial role at a pivotal moment for the budding director. Judd Hirsch plays Mitzi’s oddball Uncle Boris, who comes to visit at one point, telling tales of working in early movies, and having a profound effect on Sammy. Hirsch’s bit as crazy Boris is short but a comic highlight. Another actor notable in a smaller role is Jeannie Berlin, who is dryly funny as Burt’s disapproving mother Haddash Fabelman. “This is brisket?” she asks after marching into Mitzi’s kitchen and opening her oven door to inspect the meal.

Spielberg recreates his own earliest films – which include a dentist horror one, a Western, and a war movie – but the director has admitted in interviews that he improved them over the originals, as he found the originals too embarrassing to show. And why not? The admission is its own kind of charming for fans and film buffs, and more of that catnip for the childhood movie-makers among us.

“The Fabelmans” is a lovely love letter to film-making, and to Spielberg’s family, with a message about good parenting and what matters in life. This film is very well-constructed, weaving together Sammy’s movie-making and growing up, with what is happening to his parents’ marriage, in a cohesive tale of family life. It is film that is entertaining but has something real to say about growing up and following dreams.

“The Fabelmans” is a wonderful cinematic Thanksgiving treat, particularly for those who dabbled in movie-making as kids.

RATING: 4 out of 4 stars