Reel Thoughts: ‘The Fabelmans’ is a success as both introspective autobiography and family drama


Illustration by Emily Lichty

Steven Spielberg’s “The Fabelmans” is his most personal film yet.

Rhys Halaby, Reporter

Warning: This article contains mild spoilers. 

Venerated filmmaker Steven Spielberg has struck again with “The Fabelmans,” a family drama that functions as an insightful retrospective of his youth.

Despite reeling in only $20.2 million on a $40 million budget at the global box office, the film has been a critical success. Winning two Golden Globes, including best drama, makes the film an Oscar hopeful as we head deeper into awards season. 

Released in November, the movie is based on Spielberg’s own life story. In his most personal film to date, the filmmaker manages to imbue the story with depth and sincerity that has moviegoers and critics alike praising it. To date, it scores more than 80% on Rotten Tomatoes for both audiences. 

The film, set over the course of twelve years, opens with a young Sammy Fabelman (Mateo Zoryan) who is anxious and unwilling to enter a movie theater for a showing of “The Greatest Show On Earth.” Noting his fear, his father Burt (Paul Dano) tries a technical approach by explaining how movies work.

“The photographs move past faster than your brain can let go of them,” he says. “And that’s how the movie projector tricks us into believing that motionless pictures are moving –- a motion picture!” 

However, it’s Sammy’s mother Mitzi (Michelle Williams) who succeeds in easing his mind when she says, “Movies are dreams, dolly, that you never forget. You just wait and see, when it’s over, you’re gonna have the biggest sloppiest smile on your face.” 

The dichotomy between Burt and Mitzi, strongly representative of Spielberg’s own parents, is one Sammy spends the whole movie uncovering. 

Sammy’s unique relationship with his mother becomes apparent when he creates his first movie. After watching “The Greatest Show on Earth,” Sammy develops nightmares from a frightening train crash scene. His mother, recognizing that reliving the memory will help him process it, gives him permission against his father’s will to recreate the crash using his new model train engine. She later advises him, “You do what your heart says you have to. Because you don’t owe anyone your life.”

His father, on the other hand, is a technological genius. Grounded in the rational, he finds himself exasperated when Mitzi, seeking a more natural sort of grandeur, piles the children in the car to drive after a tornado. After they find themselves as desolately alone as they are perilously close to the twister, Mitzi turns with uncertainty in her eyes to her children and makes them repeat the phrase, “Everything happens for a reason.”

Shortly after the tornado incident, the Fabelmans move to Phoenix, Arizona. Phoenix is where Sammy begins making movies with his fellow Boy Scouts. While in Arizona, he also learns about an affair his mother has been having with his father’s best friend, Bennie (Seth Rogen).

In the film, Spielberg uses Sammy to reveal a lot of what he resented in his upbringing. To his father, he complains about an aspect of his Jewish heritage, “Ours is the dark house with no lights. That’s what I want for Hanukkah … Christmas Lights.”

His mother replies frankly, “Sorry Dolly, Jews don’t get Christmas lights.”

Antisemitism follows Sammy for much of his life, particularly after the Fabelmans move to California. 

The film is heavy. Though some audiences criticize it for its length (151 minutes), the runtime is justifiable in light of Spielberg’s need to convey the excruciating secret of his mother’s affair. Even before the scandal is revealed, there’s a palpable feeling, conveyed by the awkward length of some scenes and the brilliance of John Williams’s score, that something is not quite right. Spielberg has had six decades to grapple with the notion in his head. It’s a testament to him and the rest of the crew that they were able to evoke those feelings so viscerally. 

However, Spielberg does manage to keep the film light enough. In one hilarious scene with his soon-to-be girlfriend Monica Sherwood (Chloe East), Sammy is impelled to kneel, pray and “inhale Jesus” prior to (or as a cover for) a makeout session. 

And in a legendary moment that is simply too good to be true (but is!) Sammy meets “the greatest filmmaker who ever lived,” John Ford (David Lynch). His five minutes with Ford are the perfect capstone to a movie that is, at its core, about filmmaking. For movie buffs, that scene alone should be worth the price of admission. 

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