The Fabelmans Review

Reviews Films




The official blurb for the movie THE FABELMANS is: “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”.  This is an accurate description of the story, but movie you will experience has somewhat more going on.

The fictional Fabelmans are a version of Steven Spielberg’s family. He and his sister Anne Spielberg (who is a screenwriter), have been discussing turning this story into a screenplay for many years. Tony Kushner, the award-winning writer of Angels in America (the play and the television adaptation) persuaded Spielberg to move forward with the project when he was co-writing MUNICH for the director back in 2005.

Spielberg has wanted to tell his story but wasn’t certain when the time would be right. He was concerned about whether he could do justice to a story that he shares with his parents and his sisters. Particularly because there are elements that don’t show the family in a perfect light. There was a struggle between a the desire to speak the truth and the need to not to hurt one’s family. Which is probably why this family  are the Fabelmans rather than the Spielbergs. This light veil of fiction has allowed many a storyteller to move forward with their biography. Kushner suggested the title because he liked the idea of “fable” being at the heart of the family’s name.

The leads are excellently cast. Gabriel LaBelle plays the teenage Sammy and does a beautiful job showing us the obsessed and very vulnerable boy who never feels he quite fits in, even though he is far from being a loner. Michelle Williams plays the mother Mitzi, a concert pianist who wants to get back on stage but is beset with the pressures of family and mental health challenges. Paul Dano plays the father Burt, a mild-mannered electrical engineer whose search for better jobs moves the young family across the country, several times. The support players are also excellent with notables such as Seth Rogen, Judd Hirsch and director David Lynch making an impact in their smaller roles.

There are scenes where we see the Fabelmans living their life in the prosperous, post World War 2 America. This is when the baby boomers, like Spielberg, had their heyday. There is great prosperity and stability. The challenges that Sammy faces includes the antisemitism of his classmates. In some of the places the family moves to, they are the sole Jewish family in the neighbourhood.

For the most part, however, his greatest struggle is to find a way to pursue the art of filmmaking that he discovers as a young boy. The birth of this passion involves ther Cecil B. DeMille film THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH. Everything that surrounds love for the idea of filmmaking, involves his connection to his mother. The frustrated artist within her, hopes to show her oldest child that art is an escape from the ordinary world.

Some of these moments, when we see Sammy at his youngest, making home movies are reminiscent of Giuseppe Tornatore’s CINEMA PARADISO (1988). We are essentially getting a film fan’s view of the dream of moviemaking. We get into the mind of the boy who fell deeply in love with cinema.  Except this particular boy will become one of the world’s best-known directors, who will change the film industry in many ways.

Steven Spielberg is one of the few film directors most people know by name. From the mid-1970s when he directed JAWS (1975), he redefined movie science fiction with CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND (1977) and ET: THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL (1982). As has been noted by movie scholars such as Peter Biskind, he was part of the generation of filmmakers that took what were B-movie concepts and made them into box-office block busters with A-picture budgets. Francis Ford Coppola, Brian De Palma, George Lucas and Martin Scorsese are his contemporaries and they were a major force in changing how American movies were made and seen.

Spielberg is pre-eminent in this group, because his earlier movies were a smash across the board in monetary terms. His films have grossed over ten billion dollars at the global box office, making him the top-grossing director of all time. The way he makes films, his aesthetic choices and the ideas he has explored have been exposed to a massive audience over the last fifty years. His reach as a producer, where he backed a range of movies and television projects means he has had unprecedented power and influence on film culture.

That the 76-year-old director-producer has decided to finally make this thinly-disguised biography about his family and his first twenty-years is notable. It is definitely of interest to movie buffs and Spielberg fans. If you enjoyed the historical reconstruction part of ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD (2019), you may find similar joys here. We are given an insight into the way he made his early home movies like his war film ESCAPE TO NOWHERE (1961). We even get to see his family in a hall with an audience watching the film. Therefore, we see the fictional Spielbergs watching a recreation of a home movie that was actually made by the director who is currently directing this movie, The Fabelmans. That’s a whole bunch of meta right there.

I enjoyed this film in sections. Like many bio-pics it has an episodic quality rather than a strongly linear story. Being a Spielberg film there was plenty to see and much of it was excellently performed. At two-and-a-half hours, I wonder whether this $US40-million movie is a very expensive, long form way to tell what is largely the story of a troubled middle-class American family in mid-century USA. It was entertaining and interesting, but for me, not essential.


Phil has written for magazines, corporate videos, online ads, and even an app. He writes with one eye on the future, one eye on the past and a third eye on the Lotto numbers. His social bits are here.