The Fabelmans (2022) review – Spielberg’s earnest origin story isn’t quite magical but still enjoyable for fans of his work

fabelmans-poster

Spielberg’s films are often told from the point of view of children or feature kids prominently. So it’s no surprise that his semi-autobiography loosely based on his childhood is told through a fictional boy Sam ‘Sammy’ Fabelman during his formative years. Even the most casual moviegoers who don’t pay much attention to the film industry would likely know who Steven Spielberg is… his name is practically synonymous with Hollywood blockbusters–his films have grossed more than $10 billion worldwide and he’s won three Academy Awards. 

Fittingly, the film opens with a family trip to the movies one fateful night in 1952. Six-year-old Sammy is initially frightened of the cinema experience, as most toddlers are still afraid of the dark. Once inside the theater though, he ends up being absolutely transfixed by Cecil B. DeMille’s The Greatest Show On Earth. Young Sammy (Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord) immediately asks for a train set for Hanukkah after seeing the train crash scene in the movie. It leads to his mom lending him his dad’s 8mm camera to record it, thus his first love for films began.

fabelmans-trip-to-movies

Fast forward to teenage Sam (Gabriel LaBelle) who’s even more passionate about making movies. He gets the best of both worlds–the technical side from his electrical engineer dad Burt (Paul Dano) and the creative side from his free-spirited pianist mom Mitzi (Michelle Williams). Sam’s parents are shown as being supportive to his filmmaking endeavor. Even though Burt dismisses Sam’s zeal for films as just a hobby, he still helps him out in his student films. His father’s co-worker and friend Bennie (Seth Rogen) is practically his uncle and has a close relationship with Mitzi. As the audience, it doesn’t take long to realize there’s something going on between Bennie and Mitzi. Yet the moment Sam discovers it through his film footage proves to be devastating. Undoubtedly, it’s the kids that suffer the most from a parental breakup and Sam takes it quite hard that he lost his passion for making movies for a while. 

The film is visually stunning, lensed by Spielberg’s longtime collaborator Janusz Kaminski (who won two Oscars for Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan). The scene of a boy playing with toy trains looks gloriously dramatic and there’s the scene of Mitzi dancing on a camping trip. It’s perhaps one of the most sensual moments in Spielberg’s movies, with Mitzi wearing a sheer dress lit by a car’s headlights.

fabelmans-camping-trip

I feel that the film is more engaging in the first half, I enjoyed seeing the slice of life of a Jewish family living who observe Jewish traditions. It’s the happier times of the family before Burt uproots the family west and further away from Jewish communities. The high school years are a key shaping period for Sam in his teenage years, but it’s tonally uneven. The flow and tone don’t always gel, it feels more like Spielberg ticking off a list of crucial coming-of-age moments. 

There are the traumatic scenes of him being bullied by anti-semitic classmates and meeting his first girlfriend, Monica who happens to be a devout Christian. The scene where Monica tries to seduce him while trying to convert him at the same time is quite comical. Sam gets his filmmaking mojo back when Monica lends him her dad’s 16mm camera that he uses to film the Senior Skip Day. The finished film ends up being a watershed moment for both Sam and his fellow students who bully him.

At 2.5 hours long, the film gets a bit self-indulgent with pacing issues. I wouldn’t say it’s boring but compared to most of his films, it’s all very sentimental and a bit bland. If the story had been entirely fictional instead of about Spielberg, not sure if it would’ve been as intriguing. The terrific performances manage to keep it engaging, however. LaBelle is great to watch as Sam, believably portraying a genius filmmaker in the making while displaying layers of vulnerability as a boy struggling with his parents’ marital breakdown. On top of spot-on casting, LaBelle has certainly done his research for the role. 

fabelmans-judd-hirsch

Williams and Dano are well-cast as Sammy’s parents, with Williams playing the flashier character as a free-spirited artist with melancholic moods and prone to depression. But Dano is equally memorable in a quiet, taciturn role. Spielberg does his best not to place blame on either one of his parents, and I find myself empathizing with both as flawed people who love each other but aren’t well-matched. An animated Judd Hirsch has a memorable cameo as Sam’s uncle who’s a former lion tamer in a traveling circus. His speech about how art is their chosen drug is one of the movie’s highlights.

Apparently, the 75-year-old filmmaker had thought about making a movie about his childhood for twenty years before he finally worked on the script with his frequent collaborator Tony Kushner (Lincoln, West Side Story). The Fabelmans is a decidedly nostalgic blend of family drama and a love letter to moviemaking. The ode-to-cinema theme has become a bit of a cliché lately as there are so many movies coming out this year with a similar theme (Empire of Light, Babylon). That said, this one feels earnestly personal as filmmaking isn’t just an artistic passion for Spielberg but it also helps him to see the unvarnished truth in his life, even if it’s a painful one. 

fabelmans-young-spielberg

As we’re shown more than a glimpse into his youth that inspires him to be a master storyteller, it’s fun to see the early influences of his most famous work such as E.T., Saving Private Ryan, etc. John Williams’ score is so subtle that I barely remember any of the melodies afterward, but perhaps the beauty of it is that it doesn’t overpower the story. As an eternal optimist, Spielberg aptly ends his personal tale on a bouncy, triumphant note. SPOILER ALERTThe final scene takes place on a film set where Sam meets the legendary Hollywood director John Ford (featuring a surprising cameo by David Lynch). That final moment is definitely one-perfect-shot material with a touch of whimsy that made me smile. Overall though, The Fabelmans lacks a certain kind of Spielberg magic, but still, it’s essential viewing for fans of his work.

3.5/5 Reels


What do you think of The Fabelmans

///

14 thoughts on “The Fabelmans (2022) review – Spielberg’s earnest origin story isn’t quite magical but still enjoyable for fans of his work

  1. I’ll wait till it hits streaming to see this one. The 2.5 hours runtime sounds too much for me to see it in theater. Some movies are way too long these days. Which is why I’m skipping seeing Avatar 2 in theater, the 3.5 hours run time is just way too long.

    1. Yeah, it’s really an annoying trend to see movies well over 2-hours long. Avatar 2 is 3 hrs 12 min, but with trailers in front of it then you’re right, closer to 3.5. Back in the day when Old Hollywood classics are almost 4 hours long like Ben Hur, there’s at least an intermission!

      1. I typically only see movies at Dolby Cinema these days and they have like 30 to 40 minutes of previews, so I’ll be in theater closer to 4 hours if I go see Avatar 2. Lol! It’s just ridiculous that films are that long these days. I’m sure Covid may have something to do with it. Since most studios don’t release that many films in theaters anymore, they might as well let filmmakers keep as much of the footage they shot as they want.

  2. I’d like to check this out as I’ve been iffy on Spielberg ever since that awful movie he made with the aliens and Shia LaBeouf that I prefer to deny its existence. Still, I’d like to check this out since it does feel like a film Spielberg has been wanting to make for years as it is about himself and his family.

    1. Oh you’re referring to Indy 4? Yeah, that’s dreadful with or without Shia in it! But Spielberg has made way more hits than misses so it’s still interesting to see his filmmaking journey here.

  3. Pingback: The Fabelmans (2022) evaluation – Spielberg’s earnest origin story isn’t fairly magical however nonetheless pleasurable for followers of his work – FLIXCHATTER FILM BLOG – Ykine

  4. The more I read about this movie, the lower my expectations go. I struggle sometimes with films that are so personal to the director that immediately get a ton of festival buzz (like Roma and Stories We Tell) and this is giving me the same vibes.

    Still, as part of Dano Nation, I will see it. lol

    1. I actually still haven’t seen those two movies you mentioned, though I’m still curious about Stories We Tell. Personal stories are tough and even Spielberg himself struggled w/ this one by his own admission.

      Oh if you’re a fan of Dano then you should see this one!

  5. Pingback: Empire Of Light Review – gloriously shot and well-acted but Sam Mendes’ script feels largely contrived – FLIXCHATTER FILM BLOG

  6. Pingback: Empire Of Light Review – herrlich gedreht und gut gespielt, aber das Drehbuch von Sam Mendes wirkt weitgehend erfunden – FLIXCHATTER FILM BLOG – #Empire #Light #Review #herrlich #gedreht #und #gut #gespielt #aber #das #Drehbuch #von #Sam #Mendes

  7. Pingback: Empire Of Gentle Assessment – gloriously shot and well-acted however Sam Mendes’ script feels largely contrived – FLIXCHATTER FILM BLOG – Ykine

  8. Pingback: Musings on Golden Globes 2023 Nominees – 5 Egregious Snubs + 5 Things I’m Excited About – FLIXCHATTER FILM BLOG

  9. Pingback: Empire Of Light Review – gloriously shot and well-acted but Sam Mendes’ script feels largely contrived – FLIXCHATTER FILM BLOG – Motube

Join the conversation by leaving a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s