The Big Picture – ‘The Fabelmans’

Steven Spielberg’s childhood tale culminates in an interesting, one-time watch


Graphic created in Canva by Elena Burgé and Gavin S. Hudson. Movie posters courtesy of Universal Pictures.

Gavin Hudson

Disclaimer: Light spoilers for the film are included in this review.

With the Oscars right around the corner, there’s been a couple “Best Picture” nominees I have to see. So, in the spirit of celebrating film, I started with Steven Spielberg’s life story, “The Fabelmans.” 

The film follows the life of young Sammy Fabelman, a self-insert for Spielberg, an aspiring young director with a love for cinema and a passion for making movies. Sammy sees his family get torn apart, has his faith tested and discovers his flourishing passion for film as the Fabelman family moves state to state to keep up with the father’s work.

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You can tell that Spielberg waited a long time to tell this story. He’s at a point in his career where he no longer has to prove himself, so he’ll spend his time working on things he cares about and it’s apparent that he cares about his childhood. 

Spielberg invites us to witness the standout moments from his childhood: the first time he saw a movie, the intoxicating feeling of making his first film, his first love and his childhood bullies. 

Each of these moments and characters help the film tell a story of wonder and trauma, blending together for a tale of success and passion. 

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Sammy Fabelman, played by Gabriel LaBelle, sets up his film reel for his senior class to see. He recorded their ‘Ditch Day’ event and captured numerous moments of his fellow students having fun and being secretive. (Photo credit Universal Studios via IMDB)

The cinematography is standard Spielberg, yet it stands out as one of my favorite parts. The way he navigates through a cramped apartment while maintaining perfect distance is a small example of how well he can move a camera. 

The joke he implants at the end of the film by establishing the importance of horizons in shot composition was a cherry on top to an already great visual adventure. 

Paul Dano and Michelle Williams as Sammy’s parents give the best performances in the film. The final shot of Dano looking down at a photo of his ex-wife living happily with his former best friend captures the heartbreak he’s experienced. 

Michelle Williams is absolutely brilliant and deserves the nomination for “Best Actress” as she conveys the sentiments of a wife so disconnected from her husband. Seeing this woman crack at the seams from her own dissatisfactions is  conveyed empathetically, likely by design, as the love and support she gave Sammy in his youth had a significant  impact on his career going forward. 

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A young Sammy, played by Mateo Zoryan, watches a movie with his parents for the first time, played by Paul Dano and Michelle Williams. Admiring the very images that would flood his nightmares, Sammy watches intently as the magic of film is revealed to his young eyes. (Photo credit Universal Studios via IMDB)

Seeing David Lynch was a pleasent surprise while starring as John Ford, one of film’s greatest directors. While both he and his character share that title, there’s a clear sentiment of “game respect game” between Spielberg and Lynch based on them working together here. 

Some of the child acting can be distracting at points but it’s done with such a playful air that it’s hard to really knock the film for it.

John Williams’ score for the film didn’t leave much of an impact, albeit disappointingly. Not discrediting his genius as one of film’s most legendary composers, I just didn’t leave the film with the soundtrack in mind at all. 

One scene toward the end of the film features Sammy and one of his bullies discussing the bully’s role in one of his movies. The bully begins to cry at the thought of living up to the idol Sammy’s movie made him out to be and says he’ll never tell anyone unless he makes a movie about it. 

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Sammy’s dad, played by Paul Dano, finally sees proof of his wife cheating on him with his old best friend. He reflects on the lies he was told and the failure he believes he’s become. (Photo credit Universal Studios via IMDB)

It’s one of those tongue-and-cheek moments that didn’t work well, almost defeating the purpose of the film. We’re watching Sammy blossom into who we know as Steven Spielberg, but the scene comes across as Spielberg doubling back on one of his old high school vendettas. You can feel him giving a wink to the camera in the most obvious way possible. 

While I enjoyed the film, there wasn’t enough for me to fall in love with. I’m happy I saw it, but I don’t plan on seeing it again. 

“The Fabelmans” gets a 7/10 from me.