‘The Fabelmans’ depicts a family’s complexity with honesty and delicacy

4.5 out of 5 stars  

Steven Spielberg’s “The Fabelmans,” a semi-autobiographical story of a young man’s journey into filmmaking and the impact it has on his family, takes an honest but loving look at the codependent relationship between storytelling and real life.  

According to MovieWeb, most of the main plot points of the story are accurate to Spielberg’s life. The tumultuous relationship between parents Burt and Mitzi Fabelman (Paul Dano, Michelle Williams), the films Sammy Fabelman (Gabriel LaBelle) makes with his friends and the antisemitism he faced in school are all based on Spielberg’s actual experiences growing up.  

The core of the movie’s complexity comes from dynamic performances by Williams and Dano. The two actors generate empathy and pity for both of their characters, even as their marriage crumbles. Williams’ Mitzi is artistically unstable, going through bouts of self-obsession and compulsive behavior while still managing to encourage Sammy’s dreams. Dano’s Burt balances the scale as an enthusiastically brilliant engineer who throws himself into his work, while still idolizing his wife.  

Sammy’s role is split between Mateo Zoryan and LaBelle as he grows up over the course of the movie. He transitions from a wide-eyed little boy obsessed with making movies to a thoughtful teenager struggling to pursue his passion in the face of his father’s doubt and growing pains. LaBelle takes on this challenge with sincerity and spirit, capturing Sammy’s natural awkwardness as his parents shift the world around him. 

The script, written by Spielberg and renowned playwright Tony Kushner, takes its time balancing out deep, emotional scenes with just enough humor to create a realistic tone. Sammy faces painful challenges in the different stages of his life, but the depiction never becomes self-indulgent or overdramatic.   

Each scene is carefully grounded in reality, and yet the movie manages to bring the beautiful into the mundane when Sammy makes his movies, such as when Mitzi dances in the headlights of a car or a model train crashes. Spielberg primarily achieves this using light and filters that make some scenes feel simple on the first watch, and magical once Sammy replays them on his film reel.  

The score is understated yet dynamic, combining original compositions by John Williams with the classical piano pieces that Mitzi plays depending on the current tone. The simplicity of the music complements the gentleness of the movie and rounds it out for a consistent, genuine story.  

The film largely fails however in its attempt at pacing. By nature, the movie’s plot needs to take its time to show the subtleties of growing up, but there were times when it was slow enough that it became harder to follow with genuine interest.  

Spielberg’s love letter to film and his own roots recently won Best Drama at the Golden Globes. The win is deserved, not just for the effort that he put into crafting this specific movie, but for all the work it took to learn how to do it, as “The Fabelmans” shows us.  

Photo from universalpictures.com.