It should be assumed that those who make films have a strong passion for the medium. Yet there are many different ways that filmmakers can come to that love, and in some cases, it can happen later in life and after time spent later in a career. But for many, and likely most, that key moment occurs early on and is very formative. Steven Spielberg has been making movies for half a century, ranging from science fiction to adventure to historical drama. His latest film, The Fabelmans, is also his most deeply personal, revisiting the way that his passion for making movies grew as a child.
Sammy Fabelman (Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord) goes with his mother Mitzi (Michelle Williams) and Burt (Paul Dano) to see his first movie, The Greatest Show on Earth. He is entranced by a train scene and proceeds to begin filming everything after his mother gets him a camera. As he becomes a teenager (Gabriel LaBelle) and moves with his family from Arizona to Northern California, Sammy looks at the world through his camera, which shows him the strained relationship between his parents, and struggles to adjust to a new school where he is immediately targeted by bullies.
Sammy’s infatuation with making movies is a central theme throughout the film. He purposely destroys the train set his father gets him for Hanukkah to see how he can recreate what he saw in another movie. He has family, friends, and even people he doesn’t know come to act in his western stick-up scenes or his ambitious World War II projects. His father pushes him to grow up and forget this hobby, while his mother, who herself has difficulty grounding herself and finding a purpose after their move, is more encouraging of something that clearly makes him happy.
What is in fact based on Spielberg’s own life and what is factionalized is indeed a subject of curiosity, but what Spielberg has done here is to create a fitting vision of a young boy obsessed with directing films, a sentiment that feels extremely true for the veteran artist behind so many popular films. This is also a very Jewish movie, one that finds Sammy facing antisemitism when he is the only Jew at his new school, and, much more humorously, beginning a relationship with Monica (Chloe East) whose desire to have him bring Jesus into him is laced with hilarious double entendres.
Humor is at the heart of The Fabelmans, and it’s a collective effort by the entire ensemble to contribute to that. Judd Hirsch has a memorable role as Sammy’s great-uncle, a man who is in the movies but comes to it from a very different place than his starry-eyes great-nephew. Dano and Williams balance the funny moments well with the drama, and other cast members, including Seth Rogen and David Lynch, are particularly well-suited to their roles. East is marvelous, as are both the actors who portray Sammy. While his onscreen parents are definitely better-known and receive top billing, LaBelle makes this role feel lived-in and is absolutely the star.
Longtime fans of Spielberg will likely appreciate that this film doesn’t feel all that much like a lot of his previous work, yet it still seems intimate, personal, and very fitting. Its midcentury setting is transporting, and the magic of putting together film reels is felt vividly in each scene. The story also covers a large chunk of Sammy’s childhood and his parents’ relationship, and Spielberg and co-writer Tony Kushner know just where to end it to leave Sammy’s future open enough while still providing satisfying hints of a positive trajectory. It’s easy to enjoy The Fabelmans, a film that, for its creator, was clearly a labor of love.
Following its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, The Fabelmans will be released in limited markets on November 11th and everywhere Thanksgiving.