‘The Fabelmans’ Review: Life on the Screen

The Fabelmans (2022) gives us a new take on a cliché message “Do what makes you happy,” but at what cost?  This movie shows us the power of film on and off the screen and how filmmakers can pour their hearts into their art.  It might just reignite your creative pursuits, or at the very least, give you a solid dose of 1960s nostalgia.


The Fabelmans is a semi-autobiographical film loosely based on Steven Spielberg’s adolescence and first years as a filmmaker.  The story is told through the fictional character of Sammy Fabelman.  In the opening scene, young Sammy is taken to a theatre to see a new film, The Greatest Show on Earth (1952).  Sammy’s father, Burt Fabelman, explains in technical detail how moving pictures work, while his mother, Mitzi Fabelman, describes the circus that Sammy will see in the film.  Mitzi encourages Sammy, who is nervous about entering the theatre, while Burt questions if Sammy is too young for the film. This becomes a familiar dynamic between Mr. and Mrs. Fabelman that eventually leads to conflict.  The grounded engineer and the free-spirit artist.


Sammy suffers from nightmares of the film and becomes obsessed with crashing his new Lionel model train in a similar manner. Mitzi encourages Sammy to film it with his dad’s camera to spare the toy’s repeated collisions.  Sammy does as his mother suggests, and his anxiety is put at ease while reviewing the footage.  This is an example of something Steven Spielberg discusses in his documentary Spielberg (2017).  Steven often didn’t know how to handle his emotions as a kid, and the camera became his way of processing things.  At that point in Sammy’s life, he became obsessed with filmmaking.


The cinematography is classic Spielberg.  Zoom shots, fluid movement, and single-camera work keep you captivated and emotionally connected to the drama. Spielberg is a master at using the camera as a character in the story.  His approach makes you feel like you are a member of the Fabelman family.  You won’t find any distracting CG elements or breathtaking aerial shots. The camera remains grounded and focused on the characters.


Instead of a predictable progression of a young prodigy, the film quickly shifts to the tumultuous family dynamic.  As Sammy enters puberty, his film projects become his outlet during different chapters. His parents move the family across the country, Mitzi becomes depressed and buys a pet monkey, and Burt dives deeper into work while things fall apart.


The cast gives us a convincing performance, but two actors made an unexpected and beautiful impact on my experience. The first was Michelle Williams, who plays Sammy’s mother, Mitzi Fabelman.  Williams’ performance will inspire you, make you laugh, and even have you reaching for tissues before it is over.  The other unexpected performance was from actor Seth Rogan, who plays Burt’s best friend and work colleague, Bennie. I expected Rogan would bring over-the-top comedy, but he goes against typecasting and provides subtle humor and layered performance.  Rogan shows us a new side of his lovable charm that I don’t think we have seen before.


The film doesn’t follow Steven Spielberg’s childhood exactly, although it clearly depicts many events that occurred in his life.  One difference that caught my attention was the father-son relationship between Burt and Sammy.  Spielberg explains in his documentary, Spielberg that he didn’t speak to his father for 15 years after his parent’s divorce, but this is never shown in the film. Early Spielberg movies often reflected an absent father figure during the estrangement.  Films like Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982), Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989), and Hook (1991) all had absentee fathers.  Steven eventually reconciled with his father in the mid-90s and shared a close relationship with him before passing in 2020.  Steven shows us a different father-son dynamic between Burt and Sammy.  While Burt is a workaholic, like Steven’s father, Burt doesn’t have a pivotal falling out with Sammy.  Perhaps Steven wanted to spare Burt and Sammy the pain of estrangement.


The Fabelmans was released on Thanksgiving Day and likely didn’t hit your radar while cooking the turkey or setting fire to your kitchen.  It scored 92% on Rotten Tomatoes with an 82% audience score.  It is Spielberg’s 33rd feature film which is quite a feat among his peers.  The runtime is a lengthy 2 hours and 31 minutes, so don’t drink a mini box of pinot and expect to make it to the end without a break.  Trust me, I tried.  If you are a fan of Spielberg’s work, I highly recommend seeing The Fabelmans.


Author Bio PicJoe Ellis

Joe is the digital media manager of Smerconish.com.He is passionate about delivering a balanced media diet and believes it’s critical to a well-informed electorate. He comes from a diverse technology background and holds a B.A. in International Relations. In his free time he’s an avid gamer, CrossFitter, and car enthusiast. He enjoys traveling the world with his family, going to rock concerts, and watching stand-up comedy. He is also a military veteran and currently serves part-time as a UH-60 Black Hawk pilot for the Army National Guard.

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