The Fabelmans is the story of Sammy (Gabriel LaBelle), a young Jewish boy with a big vision. After an outing to see Cecil B. DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth, Sammy becomes enthralled with the idea of making motion pictures. His mother Mitzi (Michelle Williams) and surrogate uncle Benny (Seth Rogan) strongly encourage this pursuit at every turn. Sam’s father Burt (Paul Dano), however, mostly tolerates his son’s cinematic interests but also dismisses them as a hobby—not a career. As the Fabelmans move around the country due to Burt’s work, Sam’s relationships become strained: his parents can’t seem to get on the same page, and students ostracize him at school due to his Jewish heritage. Leveraging his personal highs and lows by channeling them into his work, Sam finds a way to continue creating art through movies.
What works in The Fabelmans are the relatable characters, the balance of tone, and a glimpse into one of the greatest filmmakers ever. For writer/director Steven Spielberg (no references needed) The Fabelmans is a quasi-autobiography. As such, Spielberg uses this opportunity to explore his influences as he grew up and how differing perspectives and philosophies shaped his passion. There’s no real villain in The Fabelmans—there are just people who want what’s best for Sam but disagree on what form that should take. The clearest example of this is the mismatch between his mother who advocates for being silly and expressive, and Sam’s dad who champions focused hard work at all costs.
Given the subject matter, Spielberg obviously brings a strong human element to The Fabelmans. To call this a personal story for the director would be an understatement and Spielberg doesn’t hold back. There’s a raw display of honesty, fairness, and grace in how Spielberg presents the people in Sam’s life. He always gives those individuals the benefit of the doubt, looking to find their best side even when it’s hidden below the surface. To that end, for all its drama, The Fabelmans is also laugh out loud funny but not in a way that feels hokey or jokey. In anything, Spielberg celebrates the differences in people by acknowledging that finding a common middle ground and seeing the world from other people’s points of view is tough. It can be painful or comedic, but such pursuits always have value.
The Fabelmans is a very accessible film, but those familiar with Steven Spielberg’s life and work may find the movie more rewarding. That said, while Sam is clearly a surrogate for the filmmaker, the story doesn’t make many overt references to Spielberg’s catalogue. It should be noted that there are some topics that may make some uncomfortable. Primarily these stem from horrible antisemitic tendencies that ran rampant at the time—a lesson Sam learns quickly at a new high school. The exploration and understanding of these prejudices are important and crucial to the story, but again, may be unsettling for some.
The Fabelmans is a wonderful film about cinema and the development of artistic expression. It encourages all who partake to remember to live life to the fullest and to always follow one’s dreams, even when the path becomes difficult terrain. Highly recommended.
Recommended if you Enjoyed: Munich, Argo, The Artist
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