Ever since Alfonso Cuaron released his 2018 masterpiece Roma, many famous directors have been writing and producing personal films that depict their own childhood and that contain a direct ode to moviemaking. From Quentin Tarantino with the 60s-Hollywood inspired Once Upon a Time in Hollywood to Paul Thomas Anderson with the nostalgic Licorice Pizza, high-profile directors have been finding their way back to the time they learned to love film. The newest director to hop on board this train is Steven Spielberg with THE FABELMANS, an almost entirely autobiographical story about a boy who starts to develop a passion for filmmaking. During the first few moments of the film, Sammy Fabelman (Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord plays Young Sammy) is taken to a theater by his mother (Michelle Williams) and father (Paul Dano) to see Cecil B. DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth. As soon as he leaves the theater, Sammy wants to recreate the train crash scene from the movie — but in time he realizes he doesn’t only want to replicate it, he wants to film it.
Spielberg recreates his childhood family dynamic for all to see in a movie that perhaps works well because it is blatantly autobiographical. As audience members, we are acutely aware that Spielberg is displaying his whole heart and soul in THE FABELMANS, and the movie works wonders on an emotional level as a result. The first third of the movie involves young and teenage Sammy (Gabriel LaBelle) learning and expressing his love of film despite his supportive parents’ slight confusion, a pursuit that will hit home with filmmakers, artists or anyone whose passions drive their motivation for life. Sammy works hard and is incredibly gifted at film, to the point where he sees every relationship in his life through the lens of an 8mm camera. Filmmaking provides a window into the souls of those featured and also contains the DNA of the person behind the camera, which for Sammy becomes an entire philosophy on life. After all, THE FABELMANS itself is a film that shares part of Spielberg’s heart with the audience, proving the power of movies to reveal essential truths about humanity.
In the second act of THE FABELMANS, Spielberg focuses on Sammy’s family and the complicated dynamic that formed between his mother and father as he matured. This leg contains the defining themes of the film for me, in which Sammy starts to recognize his parents as human beings with flaws and insecurities instead of all-knowing parental figures. In our childhood, we often hold our mother and father to a higher standard, thinking their purpose is to help us learn about life and guide us towards the correct decisions. However, as we grow up, we learn that “parent” is simply a title they have taken on, and that they are human beings who are anything but perfect.
This dimension of THE FABELMANS is where the film thrives and where Spielberg’s presence feels the most personal and lived-in. Audiences have seen plenty of movies that boast the importance and significance of film, and many casual movie-goers don’t personally relate to that message, as potent as it might be for movie-lovers. Spielberg’s examination of family dynamics and empathy for fellow human beings combined with the artistic motifs is what makes THE FABELMANS a special film and what sets it apart from recent similar movies. Most viewers will see bits of themselves in Sammy’s story and parents will appreciate the maturity that Spielberg displays when depicting his parents onscreen.
The third act depicts Sammy in high school, which is where the movie starts to taper off a bit from the emotional weight of the family dynamic. The film transitions into a standard high school storyline that would fit in any teen drama one could name, and while this subplot is never uninspired, it comes across as lacking compared to the rest of the narrative. In the end, Spielberg still hammers home several important messages connected to his upbringing, but it bears less weight than the initial focus. However, this section of THE FABELMANS further exemplifies the truly great performances that pervade this film. Michelle Williams plays Sammy’s mother with an emotional potency that is more than could be expected of any actor, yet she still achieves it and then some. The unexpected highlight of THE FABELMANS is Gabriel LaBelle, who plays Sammy with a complexity that feels as if Spielberg himself is channeling the energy through him. These performances remain incredible even when the film falters late in the runtime.
THE FABELMANS feels like a movie that was made for critical acclaim and awards’ buzz — directed by Steven Spielberg, contains messages about the importance of film, etc. — but what is truly special is that Spielberg made it as a personal memento to his parents and his upbringing. Both his mother and father passed away in recent years, inspiring him to finally tell the one story he had yet to tell — his own. THE FABELMANS is a major step forward for Spielberg both as a filmmaker and as a human being, for it expresses his truth in an authentic manner that serves as therapy for him and the audience. In telling the story of his childhood, Spielberg helps audience members who may be looking at their upbringing with a conflicted memory of their parents or the circumstances behind their younger years. Yes, this may be an “Oscar bait” film, but it is made with such heart and personal reflection that it deserves the eventual awards’ recognition it will garner.