On the block that they live on in New Jersey for the short period of time that we know them and are introduced, The Fabelmans house is dark compared to their neighbors’ homes. Those homes are lit and decorated for Christmas while the Fabelmans are Jewish, celebrating Hanukkah – establishing the religious identity early on which follows the modest family through troubled and difficult years. A family like anyone else’s, The Fabelmans have their good days and bad, differing ideologies and ambitions but most importantly, for a long time, The Fabelmans have each other. On the outside, The Fabelmans are picturesque, who wouldn’t want to be them however, as the layers are pealed back, the once perfect looking family is found to be very flawed.
At the center of gravity of the family is Sammy Fabelman (Mateo Zoryon Francis-Deford) who is being taken to his first film, the Cecil B. DeMille film The Greatest Show on Earth by his parents Mitzi Fabelman (Michelle Williams) and Burt Fabelman (Paul Dano). Burt ventures down the rabbit hole of how a film is made and the science behind it while Mitzi spins Sammy a different tune of wonder and imagination. After the crescendo of the train sequence that utilized miniatures to get the shots of the crash, Sammy becomes obsessed with the sequence, replaying it over and over in his head.
So much so, that Sammy asks for a train set for Hanukkah to reenact what he saw on the silver screen. Burt believes Sammy doesn’t understand the value of his gift, crashing the set for fun but Mitzi sees the passion Sammy has for recreation. It’s here that Sammy’s obsession turns to an unyielding passion for telling stories. On one side, Burt is a computer engineer and is obsessed with the science behind everything he touches. There’s rules to how life is supposed to be lived in which Burt is vehemently outspoken on whereas Mitzi is a dreamer, straying off the straight and narrow path to follow her dreams as a concert pianist.
Co-written by Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner and directed by Spielberg, The Fabelmans is a semi-biographical tale of Spielberg’s youth. At the very young age that we meet Sammy, a young Spielberg bursts out of every scene that Sammy points his camera at. What’s considered just a hobby to Burt is just the opposite, Sammy is a child prodigy whose sole purpose is to tell stories that are a reflection of his intimate homelife and difficult upbringing.
Quickly, Burt as talented as he is, gets a job in Arizona to where the Fabelmans pack up and move across country to the desert heat. Moving with them is Uncle Benny (Seth Rogan), Burt’s best friend and a brilliant scientist. Benny isn’t blood related to the Fabelmans but fits right in with his easy-going personality and humorous jokes.
As the time jumps from one location to the next, Sammy gets older, played with an honesty by Gabriel LaBelle. Once Gabriel takes over, the connection between Spielberg’s direction and the actor tasked to play his fictious younger self pops off screen. LaBelle’s performance keeps up with the powerhouses of Dano and Williams, even surpassing them in the more vulnerable moments.
All of The Fabelmans is told through Sammy’s lens. His experiences are implemented into his films. What he shoots, shapes Sammy into the man we inevitably come to know as one of the greatest directors of all time – or so the final moments suggest as Sammy walks into the sunset.
More than just an homage to a child prodigy, Spielberg and Kushner explore deep themes involving family, adolescence, racism and parenthood. As kids, we think parents have it all figured it – everyone is happy and gets along with one another, bills are paid, food is on the table and the roof overhead only gets bigger with each new job. However, adulthood isn’t spectacular, relationships are deeply complex and as adults we sometimes cannot bring ourselves to explain the secrets that are held too close to the chest.
It’s the realization as the younger generation gets older that humans are flawed, choices aren’t easy to make nor easy to live it. What starts out as harmless fun can become destructive. I keep going back to one scene in particular, about 2/3rds of the way through this elongated dramatic flawed masterpiece. The Fabelmans have moved again, this time to California because Burt got a job with a tech giant. As he crosses the threshold of their small mansion with Mitzi like a couple of newlyweds, Sammy captures the heartbreak on film. Michelle Williams performance stands out without saying a word.
Another scene that keeps replaying over and over like an earworm happens when the family is in Arizona. Sammy, along with his friend group are looking to earn a photography bag in boy scouts and after hi film is shot, Sammy pours over the editing process looking for ways to make a scene more realistic. It’s Sammy’s ingenuity and eye for acute detail that speaks louder than Burt’s critical nature to calling filmmaking a hobby.
It’s more than just a hobby if it sets your soul on fire.
True happiness doesn’t involve buying a big house or having more money than you can spend, For Mitzi, true happiness is having a friend that can understand you, make you laugh and feel free. For Burt, happiness is the big house and pretending everything is fine when his family is crumbling from within. Being an adult is the hardest thing anyone can do – it doesn’t come with instructions or a training manual and both Paul Dano and Michelle Williams are the perfect embodiment of two broken people failing in spectacular fashion at holding everything together.
Bringing all of these delicate themes together is a powerful script by the longtime collaborators. Spielberg and Kushner suck the viewer in, making anyone feel part of this family during the good times and the bad. It’s a screenplay that will resonate with so many finding similarities to their childhood and complicated family life.
Sammy’s eye for directing is shown in full force from cinematographer Janusz Kamiński, capturing the imagination and displaying the ingenuity in intimate settings. Each scene stays planted on long unmoving shots, some overstaying their welcome. Another longtime fellow collaborator John Williams scores The Fabelmans, bringing sound to the silence when words cannot express the pain being suggested.
Despite all the good The Fabelmans boasts, and there is a lot of good, Spielberg hasn’t missed much in his career, the lengthy runtime and mismanaged pacing brings the imaginative ambitions back down to earth. There are moments toward the end that Spielberg and Kushner’s film could have concluded on a high note, but the film kept rolling and the scene transitions into another steady long take. Fictitious or not, The Fabelmans succeeds the most in relaying this one simple message; never grow up, keep your dreams alive by doing what you love. Passions will ignite the soul and keep the blood pumping no matter how old you are.
Screenplay By: Steven Spielberg & Tony Kushner
Directed By: Steven Spielberg
Music By: John Williams
Cinematography: Janusz Kamiński
Starring: Michelle Williams, Paul Dano, Seth Rogan, Gabriel LaBelle, Judd Hirsh, Julia Butters, Keeley Karsten, Sophia Kopera, Chloe East
Release Date: November 11, 2022
Running Time: 2 Hours 31 Minutes
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 93%