Stream It Or Skip It: ‘The Fabelmans’ on Streaming, Steven Spielberg's Inclusive and Bemused Semi-Autobiographical Dramedy – Decider

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The Fabelmans (now on VOD services like Amazon Prime Video) is Steven Spielberg at his Steven Spielbergiest. And how – the film is a fictionalized account of his adolescence, when he fell in love with filmmaking, coming of age behind a camera as his family moved across the country and his parents’ marriage crumbled and he kissed a girl and was bullied by creeps at school and felt very incredibly Jewish the entire time. And to answer your question, yes, this is one of those movies about movies that people who love movies tend to love, but with one crucial difference – Steven Spielberg made it.
The Gist: It’s New Jersey, 1952, a queue outside a movie theater showing The Greatest Show on Earth. Little Sammy Fabelman (Mateo Zoryeon Francis DeFord) is maybe five or six. He’s going to see his first movie – but he’s scared. Doesn’t wanna go. It takes some coercion from his parents, Mitzi (Michelle Williams) and Burt (Paul Dano): “Movies are dreams that you’ll never forget,” Mitzi says, and it works. Of course it works. Someone here has to grow up to make Schindler’s List and Jaws and Jurassic Park. Sammy watches in awe as the grand spectacle flicker-flicker-flickers on the screen in front of him, including a train-crash sequence that leaves him traumatized. The sight. The sound. The violence. The MOVIES.
It’s Hanukkah. Sammy asks for Christmas lights as a gift, and his parents laugh. Then he asks for a train set, which is more ecclesiastically friendly. He has a specific purpose in mind – recreating the Greatest Show on Earth train crash. It startles him. Heck, it startles the entire household. His father lectures him about taking care of his toys and his mother understands why he did it, and therefore a dynamic is established – Artists vs. Scientists. That’s a pithy explanation, but it works. Mitzi is a concert pianist who gave up her career to raise a family, and Burt is an electrical engineer. Sammy is clearly on the Artists team. Mitzi helps Sammy stage the train crash again, but this time he’ll film it with Burt’s movie camera so the boy can watch it over and over again and soothe his trauma. Sometimes you just gotta face your fears.
Sammy has two younger sisters, and soon, three. They’re a rambunctious and vibrant family, and Sammy loves making movies with them, wrapping his sisters with toilet paper like mummies or staging dentist-chair horrors with ketchup standing in for blood. Burt gets a job in Arizona, and Sammy makes him stop the car so he can direct a shot of the family pulling into the driveway. Sammy’s older now and played by Gabriel LaBelle, a Boy Scout who earns his AV patch by making elaborate films starring members of his troop. Everyone piles into the auditorium for screenings, and Burt looks on in awe and Mitzi grins wide as the lights flicker-flicker-flicker on their faces. Do the lights flicker magically? Yes, they flicker magically. How could they not flicker magically? One day Mitzi’s eccentric Uncle Boris (Judd Hirsch), who works in show business, arrives at the house so he can deliver an excruciatingly accurate speech about the pains Sammy will experience in pursuit of his art and vision. Just like his mother.
I haven’t mentioned Bennie (Seth Rogen). I probably should. He’s Burt’s best friend, a work colleague with no family to speak of. He moves with them from Jersey to Phoenix. He’s in the audience watching Sammy’s film. He’s along for the ride on a Fabelman family camping trip. He’s in the background of a shot of one of Sammy’s films holding hands with Mitzi; she leans in close to Bennie, too close. It’s enough to make Sammy give up filmmaking – for a while. I mean, somebody had to make E.T. and Raiders and Private Ryan and Close Encounters and Duel and and and. Soon they leave for Northern California for Burt’s new job and Bennie doesn’t tag along. Mitzi’s profoundly depressed, so she gets a pet monkey. Sammy’s in high school now, and the boys there don’t take kindly to Jewish people. Burt and Mitzi’s marriage gets more and more precarious. A lot stood in Sammy’s way of becoming the greatest living filmmaker as it stands here in 2022, but a lot of it enabled him, too.
What Movies Will It Remind You Of?: Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast is a remarkably similar nostalgia-heavy (mostly) autobiographical dramedy, complete with little winking embellishments. Alfonso Cuaron did similar things with Roma, as did Richard Linklater with Apollo 10½, but with less emphasis on the power of the movies.
Performance Worth Watching: Williams is quickly accruing awards-season recognition – a Golden Globe nod, her almost-certain fifth Oscar nomination – for good reason: It’s a grandly empathetic portrayal of a flawed character, complete with vocal affectations and several big, meaty dramatic scenes. When she’s on the screen, that’s immediately where your eyes go.
Memorable Dialogue: Grandma Fabelman (Jeannie Berlin) doesn’t approve of having certain animals in the house:
Grandma: My rabbi in New Jersey says a monkey in the house isn’t kosher.
Mitzi: That’s why we’re not going to eat him.
Sex and Skin: None.
Our Take: The Fabelmans is sharp and engrossing, wide-eyed and wise, rich with comedy and pathos. One senses Spielberg – who co-scripted with frequent writing partner Tony Kushner (Munich, Lincoln) – soft-pedaling the movies-are-magic-and-they-made-me-the-man-I-am stuff in order to avoid being self-indulgent, and it works. We don’t need yet another exaltation of the Greatest of All Art Forms (see: Mank, The Artist). Of course Spielberg shows affection for filmmaking, and includes inevitable fetishy scenes in which Sam Fabelman splices and edits celluloid and finds great comfort in snuggling a ratcheting camera like Linus Van Pelt to his security blanket. That’s inevitable; that’s a crucial piece of the story.
If anyone has earned the right to be publicly self-reflective, it’s Spielberg, who shaped the modern blockbuster by making massively popular films, while retaining significant credibility as an artist. The Fabelmans plays like a loosely structured and episodic memoir, with Spielberg heightening the comedic elements and dialing back the melodrama. His tonal calculations are spot-on, and the film comes off lighthearted but never insubstantial. He seems to be looking back on his life with a well-honed balance of bemusement and pensiveness, fueled by a greater understanding of his parents’ strengths and imperfections of character – his profoundly overworked father’s deep-seated kindness, his mother’s compromises and her ensuing psychological struggles.
Crucially, the film is inclusive, warm and welcoming. Spielberg invites us in, surprising us with the story’s intimacy. His work has been almost exclusively populist, and that shows in a number of key scenes: A combative dinner-table sequence to rival the best of them. A crushing moment when Sam confronts Mitzi about her infidelity. The hysterically funny scene in which Sam offers up a pitiful prayer on the floor of his vociferously Christian female classmate – “Hi there Jesus, it’s me, Sam Fabelman” – hoping it leads to a makeout session. A wild sequence in which Mitzi throws the kids in the car and chases a tornado. And it’s all cut with humor and pain, with an emphasis on the former over the latter.
Through his artistic triumphs and personal tribulations – which are intertwined in a profound manner, as ever – Sam learns what filmmaking is all about: Telling the truth or hiding the truth. Big emotions and small emotions. Embellishment and simplification. Capturing a setting and drawing us into it. Making the internal external. All that. And the film concludes with an exquisitely modulated wink, the only time Spielberg goes self-aware; he’s just too damn savvy to make a film about itself and only itself. That’s not particularly compelling. But Spielberg, the man, absolutely is.
Our Call: STREAM IT. The Fabelmans is a frequently delightful and moving rumination on an artist’s life – and it helps us better understand why and how and for whom Spielberg makes movies.
John Serba is a freelance writer and film critic based in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Read more of his work at
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