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The story Steven Spielberg says he’s been hiding from since he was seventeen, The Fabelmans is the dramatized version of the legendary filmmaker’s childhood and teenage years, ultimately revealing how he became who he is through his own lens.
Michelle Williams (My Week with Marilyn) plays the mother, Mitzi. Paul Dano (Love and Mercy) stars as the father, Burt, and Seth Rogen (Pineapple Express) as the father’s best friend. Judd Hirsch (Taxi, Dear John) makes an appearance as a visiting uncle. And Gabriel LaBelle plays the teenage version of Sammy (Spielberg’s alter ego).
We’ve spent the better part of a half-century enjoying Steven Spielberg films. Now, he entertains us in his most personal film yet.
As he accepted his Golden Globe for Best Screenplay, he shared how hard it was for him to tell his own story “head-on.” In a screenplay co-written by his collaborator, Tony Kushner, Spielberg takes us inside his childhood to see what shaped him and how he was inspired to make movies.
But this is not a corny memoir. There are no “aha moments,” no shark sighting for a young Spielberg at a beach to plant the seed for Jaws, and no spotting UFOs that become the genesis for Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
In place of self-indulgence, the focus is on the relationships and real-life moments of his childhood — the comedy and the drama. We see the powerful moment when young Sammy is taken to see The Greatest Show on Earth, the 1952 circus film spectacular, and realizes from that moment he has a calling. We see when he gets his first camera, and soon it’s with him on every family trip and Boy Scout adventure, capturing experiences that feel at once universal and elusive.
Seeing it all, in effect, through a young Spielberg’s eyes is captivating, and it’s elevated by a moving but not overpowering John Williams score and the orchestration of the performances. Paul Dano adds a quiet power to the tense family dynamics as the dad, and Michelle Williams brings great exuberance and emotional depth, shedding light on the deeper currents in the family that moved her son.
There’s also Judd Hirsch, who steals his brief time as an old-world Jewish uncle visiting the family. And speaking of Judaism, Spielberg makes many references to the impact religion had on his childhood. Even though the film takes place largely in the 1950s and early 1960s, the anti-Semitism Sammy faces in high school still resonates today.
Despite its length of two and a half hours, Spielberg keeps it flowing and left this moviegoer wanting more. The ultimate compliment from the nearly packed house where I watched it: a well-deserved smattering of applause.
Awards contention: High up on Oscar lists, the film received five Golden Globe nominations, including Best Picture – Drama, Best Actress (Michelle Williams), Best Screenplay, and Best Score.
From the critics: “Bring out the Oscars for the year’s best movie, a personal best from Steven Spielberg about his own coming of age as a teen torn between his love for movies and family (Michelle Williams is incandescent as his troubled mom),” writes Peter Travers for ABC.com. “You won’t forget this classic.”
From across social media: “The Fabelmans manages to do one of the most difficult things artistically as well as personally, which is to see ones parents as people with real inner lives who make mistakes just like everybody else does.” – @NeilBahadur
At its heart a story about the relationships that make us who we are, this is a must-see, Spielberg’s own version of Back to the Future, minus the DeLorean, for his own time-traveling to life in the 1950s.
Rated PG-13, anyone who is fan of moviemaking or creative expression will have a reason to adore The Fabelmans.
David Lynch (Twin Peaks, Blue Velvet) makes a fun cameo as legendary director John Ford.
This is the fourth film on which Spielberg and Kushner collaborated, with Kushner the solo screenwriter for Munich, Lincoln, and West Side Story.
Speaking of collaborating, Spielberg once again teams up with John Williams, who will be ninety-one in February and said he is retiring from scoring films. This is likely their final film after twenty-nine.
Where to find it: Theaters and VOD (YouTube, Prime Video, VUDU, Apple TV+). Rent it for: $19.99. Or consider buying it as a gift for someone who will watch it more than once: $24.99.