Review: Steven Spielberg Channels His Own Childhood into Mid-Century Family Drama The Fabelmans

One would assume that a Steven Spielberg film that is a thinly veiled biography of a young Steven Spielberg would feel more personal, and certainly elements of The Fabelmans do. But there’s something about this particular telling, co-written by Spielberg and frequent collaborator, playwright Tony Kushner (last year’s West Side Story), that kept me at a distance because it doesn’t dig deep enough into what drove young Sammy Fabelman to want to be a working film artist. Part of the reason behind that is that the movie centers almost as much on his far less interesting parents as it does on Sammy.

Growing up in post-WWII New Jersey, Sammy (played as a child by Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord) was so terrified by a train wreck sequence in his first movie-going experience (The Greatest Show on Earth) that he was intent on re-creating it with his own train set and the family’s home movie camera. Parents Mitzi (Michelle Williams) and Burt (Paul Dano) encourage Sammy to explore his filmmaking “hobby,” but as he gets older (teen Sammy is played by Gabriel LaBelle), and his productions get more elaborate, it’s clear to many that this is his passion, and he would like it to be his career. His vibrant, emotionally heightened mother loves the idea, while his more science- and career-minded father wants his boy to get excited by more employable pursuits. Being one of the only Jews in the vicinity, Sammy also bears the brunt of much of the antisemitic insults aimed at the family.

But at least he has the support of many family members, as well as Burt’s business partner and best friend Bernie (Seth Rogen), who is an influential force in the kids’ lives (Sammy has two sisters, Natalie and Reggie) and a comfort to Mitzi. When the family moves to Arizona, Mitzi isn’t happy, but Bernie makes the move with them, which brings the two of them closer together. Instead of focusing on the amazing production Sammy is spearheading, the film here diverts its focus to this potential soap opera happening elsewhere. I understand that Spielberg watching his parents drift apart and eventually split up was hugely impactful on him, and it’s a delicate balance between treating these life-changing events as simply background versus actually zeroing in on them the way The Fabelmans does, but it feels excessive, especially considering how abrasive and distracting Mitzi can be sometimes.

That being said, the sequences with Sammy orchestrating massive action sequence scenes and actually directing his acting-challenged fellow students are priceless—sometimes hilarious, sometimes quite emotional. Through it all, I couldn’t help but be drawn to Burt’s impossible position in his marriage and career. He’s a certified, inventive genius and much in demand in the growing tech industry, so the call to move to California seems inevitable, but it risks tearing the family apart, especially when the kids start to realize that something is going on between Bernie and their mother. Sammy is constantly upgrading his cameras and editing equipment to make better and better works at home, but he grows increasingly disinterested in the work the more the family unit is suffering. 

Especially in his work from the 1980s, the distressed or broken family plays an important part in Spielberg’s storytelling, so this segment of the film seems crucial. But perhaps the now elderly filmmaker hasn’t quite come to terms or an understanding with why his parents did what they did because there’s a real emotional void in this portion of the film, and by the time Sammy gets to college in California, living with his father after his folks divorce, the light has effectively left his dad’s eyes. I loved the ending of The Fabelmans because it leaves us in a place where we know what happens next, and even though things aren’t entirely great for the Fabelman men, we’ve seen their future.

The Fabelmans is a beautiful-looking work, and how could it not be with Janusz Kamiński as Spielberg’s regular cinematographer? But a story like this needs to be more than just attractively shot; it should hit to the core of what makes the most successful filmmaker working today tick, or at least what started him ticking. We see him in action as a young filmmaker, but I never really got a sense of what drove him as a storyteller or visual artist. The pieces are there but the dots are never connected sufficiently. 

Keep an eye out for a brief appearance by the great Judd Hirsch as Uncle Boris, who comes into the family’s life briefly and raises hell with a world-class, disruption-level event. I was also impressed with Keeley Karsten as older Natalie and Julia Butter (Leonardo Dicaprio’s memorable young scene partner in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood) as older Reggie. They are put through the ringer as much as Sammy, but their story is somewhat under-developed.

All of that being said, it’s still a worthy piece just to watch kids get excited about something, anything. I also loved the relationships between Sammy and his sisters, who quietly keep things within the family stable when their parents are threatening to pull them apart. A lot of attention is going to be placed on Williams’ portrayal as Mitzi, but Dano’s work is equally great as Burt, just more subtle as he plays a man who can’t give up his own dreams of making his mark in his own brand of creativity, even if it means losing his wife and family. He’s madly in love with her, and he can’t help but show it frequently. The interpersonal dynamics only seem simple to those not paying attention.

Perhaps The Fabelmans is only the first of two or three parts of Spielberg exploring his younger years, but I doubt it. I’d be just as curious to explore his life as a journeyman director in television before tackling his first couple of pre-Jaws features. Maybe it will take a filmmaker with some distance from Spielberg’s life to really see where he came from, but this works for now.

The Fabelmans is now in theaters.

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Steve Prokopy
Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet
Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for
Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and
filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a
frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine.
He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently
owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for
the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer
for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the
city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.

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