I grew up with Steven Spielberg movies. As soon as I read the description of this semi-autobiographical film, I knew that I wanted to see it. But I did wonder if the story and performances would be as riveting as other films I’ve seen. In this story about a young aspiring filmmaker exploring how the power of movies can help him see the truth, I found the family drama emotional and the performances breathtaking.
The Fabelmans is a coming-of-age drama directed by Steven Spielberg and co-written with Tony Kushner. The story is semi-autobiographical but uses the lens of young Sammy Fabelman (Gabriel LaBelle), who is an inspiring filmmaker. It follows Sammy as he grows up with his father, Burt (Paul Dano), mother, Mitzi (Michelle Williams), his three sisters, Reggie (Julia Butters), Natalie (Keelie Karsten), and Lisa (Sophia Kopera), and his father’s best friend Bennie (Seth Rogan). After being taken to his first film, Cecil B. DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth, Sammy becomes fascinated with films. His mother encourages him as a fellow artist and a pianist. His father would prefer him to be more practical. As Sammy grows up, he realizes that the power of film can help him see the truth, both in his family and those around him. He gets advice from his mother’s uncle Boris (Judd Hirsch) but also must deal with changes in his family, leaving him torn between his family and his art, finally finding a way to balance his life as he comes of age.
For me, I think all of us love films. But what resonates for me, beyond loving movies, is the idea of creation, of using the act of creation to illuminate truths, either hidden ones or commonalities between people. Art is about emotion, and this film does that very well, giving us a young man’s emotional journey to adulthood through the medium of film. Every scene highlights Sam Fabelman’s choice to create and film movies, allowing him to grow up to cope with the changes in his life but also show others the truth around them, even when it’s difficult. The theme of art as truth is well explored in this movie.
The family moments are well-balanced between humor but also the difficulties and challenges that families face. Sam’s father is a scientist and ends up moving his family from New Jersey to Arizona, a difficult move for his mother. He also brings his best friend Bennie with him, and that choice leads to other challenges for the family. When his father’s work takes them to California, Sam experiences racism and anti-semitic harassment. But his ability to make movies brings joy to the screen even in the most difficult times. The dynamic of the family, their laughter, and also challenges give us heartwarming moments and drama.
What really makes this film shine, though, are the performances. Gabriel LaBelle is extraordinary as teenage Sam. He is deft with emotion and authentic in his reactions. He has a natural dynamic with the girls playing his sisters, as well as Michelle Williams and Paul Dano. Michelle Williams has my favorite performance as Mitzi. She is vibrant, spirited, and breathtaking, her performance emotional without being over the top, and able to signal so much with a single look. She is brilliant, giving us just enough emotion to understand her character’s every feeling. Paul Dano is also excellent as Burt, giving a performance that resonates and is warm and caring but also illustrating a man who loves his family. Judd Hirsch is phenomenal despite a small part. He gives us both humor and wisdom. Seth Rogan has one of the most subtle and quiet performances I’ve ever seen, his humor witty but emotional. This is an all-star cast, and it shines even in the secondary performances, such as Sammy’s friends or rivals.
What might limit the film is that it is not particularly groundbreaking. Coming-of-age dramas have been done before, and this film lands on the slightly longer-than-normal side. But if you’re willing to allow it, the story and the performances will sweep you away into a heartwarming, emotional journey for both Sammy and his family. It will also give a brilliant insight into the art and the act of filmmaking.
If you love Steven Spielberg, I think you’ll want to see this film. While it is not an autobiography, he did base the character on his life. I feel it gives so much insight into his process, his influences, and also what motivated him to create movies. But even in fiction, the film is dramatic and full of heart, truth, and emotion. The performances are powerful, breathtaking, and emotional. I was so grateful to have seen this film and think if you don’t mind a slower film, this is well worth watching.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 films.
Growing up in post-World War II era Arizona, young Sammy Fabelman aspires to become a filmmaker as he reaches adolescence, but soon discovers a shattering family secret and explores how the power of films can help him see the truth.
THE FABELMANS opens wide in theaters on Wednesday, November 23, 2022.