The Fabelmans Movie Review: A Self-Portrait Of The Filmmaker As A Young Man
‘The Fabelmans’ Movie Review: A Self-Portrait Of The Filmmaker As A Young Man

After creating iconic movies about aliens, dinosaurs, sharks, Nazis, and a few about soldiers and spies, at 76, Steven Spielberg, one of the most prominent filmmakers of modern Hollywood,  goes back in time and focuses his camera on himself

Director: Steven Spielberg
Writers: Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner
Cast: Michelle Williams, Paul Dano, Seth Rogen, Gabriel LaBelle, Judd Hirsch
Ratings: 4/5


“Movies are dreams that you never forget.” 

-Mitzi Fabelman

But sometimes, those can be nightmares. Just the other day, my friend was trying to convince me to join swimming classes with her. I told her I have a phobia of sorts and can’t look at confined water-filled spaces for too long. However, it is not my fault. Blame it on the movies! I had watched James Cameron’s The Abyss when it had released in the theatres, and it had scarred the 8-year-old me so badly, that it took me years to warm up to the idea of water buckets. But, swimming pools still have to wait.

So, when the wide-eyed 8-year-old Sammy Fabelman is absolutely traumatized by a train crash scene on the screen while watching his first movie ever, Cecil B DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth, I can totally relate to it. But while Sammy would go home and try to get out of his trance by trying to recreate the scene over and over with his toy train, I would just refuse to take baths. Not surprising then that Sammy is today considered one of the masters of modern filmmaking, while I can be considered a great candidate for drowning victims.

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But, movies don’t pick favorites. Watching a scene unfold on a massive screen of a movie theatre can impact a filmmaking genius growing up in New Jersey, in the early 1950s and a random young girl growing up in Kolkata in the 1980s in almost the same way. It can be a life-changing experience. That is the magic of cinema. It transcends geography, generation, and gender. And it is this magic that is the hero of Steven Spielberg’s semi-autobiographical movie, The Fabelmans.


The Fable

The Fabelmans are a middle-class Jewish family living in New Jersey. It is 1952 and a post-Second World War America. One day, the young parents Mitzi (Michelle Williams), a former concert pianist-turned-homemaker and Burt (Paul Dano), a scientist with brilliant prospects, take their son, Sammy Fabelman (Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord),  who is essentially the onscreen avatar of Spielberg, to the movies. Little did they know that the evening would change the life of their eight-year-old boy and put him on the path of greatness. The movie is Cecil B. DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth and it holds him in thrall. Eventually, he becomes obsessed with capturing and often even creates experiences with the help of his sisters, younger sisters Reggie, Natalie, and Lisa through his dad’s 8mm camera.

These home videos get much encouragement from his artiste mother but are dismissed as a mere hobby by his otherwise supportive, scientist dad. But both in their own way help Sammy decipher the cinema as a medium—while his father breaks down the science behind movie making, his poetic mother translates cinema as dreams imprinted on the film of memory. 

Although this clash of viewpoints and diametrically opposite approach to life become instrumental in creating a rift between his parents, Sammy’s cinema as well as Spielberg’s would see a seamless assimilation of the best of their two worlds—science and arts.  Also, his parents’ divorce which was the direct result of an affair between Mitzi and Bennie (Seth Rogen), Burt’s best buddy, will loom large on his life as well as his cinema with his stories often revolving around a broken/dysfunctional family. Hence we have the estranged father in ET the Extra-Terrestrial, the abandoned wife in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, a reluctant father figure in Jurassic Park, or the boy whose mother has an affair with his father’s friend in Catch Me if You Can.

The Fabelmans follows the family as it relocates from one part of the country to another due to Burt’s job. The family is first uprooted when Burt lands a job at GE and has to move to Phoenix, Arizona. There Sammy with his Boy Scout troop start making amateur cowboy movies (however, in the movie version, these movies hardly look amateur!) and Sammy starts to experiment with music and effects in his own way. While on a camping trip with his parents, he shoots a home video of the goings on but during editing the footage he stumbles upon a dark secret that has gotten captured on film unbeknownst to him. Unlike the fictional movies he makes, he has no control over this reality. Although he edits out the unflattering truth from the final video, in real life, there is nothing that he can do to save his family from the impact of this truth.  He realizes that while life will take its own course leaving him as a mere spectator, making movies gives him the power to control the narrative; he also learns the power of editing.

Then the family and the story move to Saratoga, California as Burt lands an even better job. There Sammy, now a teenager (and played by Gabriel LaBelle), faces terrible bullying and anti-Semitic abuse in school.  While back home, his mother’s mental health becomes fragile. Eventually, the terrible truth that Sammy had edited out from the camping video comes forth and his parents decide to end their marriage. Unlike the train wreck that he can reshoot and perfect, he has no power over this train wreck of a marriage. While Mitzi follows her heart, Burt follows his head. Sammy has his own breakup as well. Amid all these misfortunes and traumatic experiences, it is his passion for creating an alternative reality of the screen that saves him.

Next, we see Sammy living with Burt in Hollywood where he will eventually convince his dad to let him follow his dream to become a filmmaker. And that journey starts with a dream encounter.

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The Fablemakers

The cast does a stellar job. Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord as the young Sammy is spot on with his often-bewildered-often-bemused gaze.  While Gabriel LaBelle gives a buoyant performance as the teenage Sammy going through the challenges of life and grappling to tweak and edit its narrative. Michelle Williams and Paul Dano give mature and nuanced performances as the volatile and glamorous Mitzi and the ever-dependable and pragmatic Burt. But it is Williams who does much of the heavy lifting portraying a woman on the brink of a mental breakdown. Seth Rogen gives a restraint as Bennie, Burt’s best friend and the jovial uncle to The Fabelmans children. He is charming and is a constant source of sunshine for the family, until things start to fall apart. Judd Hirsch is spectacular as Boris Podgorny, Sammy’s bohemian granduncle whose unexpected brief visit would have a lasting impression on Sammy.  But the icing on the cake is the cameo.


The screenplay is co-written by Spielberg and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner. The two have previously worked in movies like Munich, Lincoln, and West Side Story. However, here the dialogues often become a tad melodramatic interrupting the cadence of the story. At times the writing seems too focused on being buoyant and you feel a certain lack of depth, especially in the way the relationship between Sammy’s parents is addressed, Mitzi’s fragile mental health is dealt with, and in the scenes where we see Sammy getting bullied for being a Jew–these are a crucial part of Sammy’s as well as Spielberg’s life and they would go on to shape him as a person and a filmmaker. However, nostalgia can be a great editor for it often makes one gloss over painful memories and focuses more on the comforting ones. It is very similar to the way Sammy edits out the unpalatable bit from the video of his family trip.

The coming-of-age of Sammy Fabelman is shot on KODAK 35mm, 16mm, and 8mm film, by Janusz Kamiński and each frame exudes romance and warmth. 

The original score is done by his trusted collaborator of over 50 years, legendary film composer John Williams. There is also a great deal of classical piano music, including Beethoven, Bach, and Satie, incorporated in the movie as Mitzi Fabelman, much like Spielberg’s mother, was a brilliant concert pianist who had given up her dream to become a professional musician in order to raise a family. The Fabelmans has earned the 91-year-old Williams a nomination for Best Original Score in the upcoming Oscars. This is his 53rd overall Academy Award nomination.


After creating iconic movies about aliens, dinosaurs, sharks, Nazis, and a few about soldiers and spies, at 76, Steven Spielberg, one of the most prominent filmmakers of modern Hollywood,  goes back in time and focuses his camera on himself. The Fabelmans is a semi-autobiographical exploration of Spielberg’s formative years as a filmmaker. It is dedicated to the memory of his parents, Arnold Spielberg and Leah Adler, and to the transcendental quality of cinema.

The film traces how as his relationship with cinema becomes stronger, the strongest relationship he has known till then starts to crumble. While life takes its own course leaving him as a mere spectator, he is drawn more towards making movies as it gives him the power to control the narrative and edit out the unflattering bits.

In The Fabelmans, the attempt is not to create another stunning blockbuster but to tell a complex, heartfelt story in the simplest way possible. There is no pressing need to prove his technical brilliance as a filmmaker. Instead, Spielberg puts the focus back on the strength of great storytelling. And the result is a lavishly-mounted movie that exudes the warmth of an intimate home video. 

PS: The movie has one of the best cameos and a rather cool fourth-wall-breaking end scene!

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