THE FABELMANS movie poster |©2022 Universal Pictures

THE FABELMANS movie poster |©2022 Universal Pictures

Rating: PG-13
Stars: Michelle Williams, Gabriel LaBelle, Paul Dano, Judd Hirsch, Seth Rogen, Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord, Keeley Karsten, Alina Brace, Julia Butters, Birdie Borrea, Sophia Kopera, Jeannie Berlin, Robin Bartlett, Sam Rechner, Oakes Fegley, Chloe East
Writers: Steven Spielberg & Tony Kushner
Director: Steven Spielberg
Distributor: Universal Pictures
Release Date: November 23, 2022

In trying to evaluate THE FABELMANS, a Moebius strip-type question arises. If the exact same movie had been made by anyone except director/co-writer (with Tony Kushner) Steven Spielberg, would it be received in anything like the same way? But then, could anyone except Spielberg have made anything like it in the first place?

Those who want to know which parts of THE FABELMANS are lifted directly from Spielberg’s childhood and adolescence can refer to any of the recent interviews with the filmmaker on the subject. He certainly lets us share in the joy and sense of discovery every time young Sammy Fabelman (Mateo Zoryon Francis-Deford as a child, then Gabriel LaBelle as a teen) learns to do something new with shooting, editing, or working with actors.

Sammy starts out in ‘50s New Jersey with his parents, former concert pianist Mitzi (Michelle Williams) and computer scientist Burt (Paul Dano), plus younger sisters Natalie (Alina Brace as a child, Keeley Karsten as a teen) and Reggie (Birdie Borrea as a child, Julia Butters as a teen).

A fateful trip to the cinema with his parents has Sammy obsessively recreating a particular sequence from THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH. Mitzi suggests that Sammy film what he’s doing so he can watch it over and over, and Sammy’s love of filmmaking is born, blossoming more with each new development.

When Burt gets a better job, the family moves to Arizona. Mitzi persuades her husband to bring along his best friend and erstwhile employee, “Uncle” Bennie (Seth Rogen) by giving him a new job, too.

A few years and a new sister, Lisa (Sophia Kopera), later, Burt’s work takes the Fabelmans to Northern California. All of a sudden, the Fabelmans are pretty much the only Jewish kids at their school, and Sammy is bullied by anti-Semites. Mitzi is increasingly unhappy for different reasons.

The most assured, entertaining, and, yes, educational sequences in THE FABELMANS are when Sammy is making his Super-8 and then 16mm movies. Spielberg is entirely in his element, and everything he shows us here feels the like most fun course anyone could ever take in cinema.

The rest of THE FABELMANS is good, but not quite so heady. Spielberg and Kushner expressively put forward the reality of a family that is not especially religious, but still culturally very Jewish (something that will resonate with viewers who grew up in similar circumstances).

There’s also some satisfaction in the acknowledgement of what is essentially the dark side of AMERICAN GRAFFITI, although it feels like either the filmmakers or Sammy’s tormentors are pulling a few punches. (Most people who were outsiders in high school know that when adolescents get vicious, they’re often far worse than this.)

While Williams gets top billing as Mitzi, this is ultimately Sammy’s tale. We see Mitzi and Burt through Sammy’s eyes. Still, this is a pretty persuasive and gently-handed chronicle of a marriage strained simply by the fact of both partners’ humanity.

Burt loves Mitzi unconditionally and adores her, but it’s not in his mental wheelhouse to see his wife as a full person with her own ambitions outside of the home. Mitzi desperately wants to be a good wife and mother, and she’s intensely supportive of Sammy, but she can’t forever suppress the rest of her being. Precisely because this isn’t the main focus of THE FABELMANS, this feels proportionate and credible.

The performances are excellent from top to bottom. Judd Hirsch has a couple of standout scenes as Uncle Boris, who gives young Sammy some profound career and life advice.

A lot of filmmakers have a highly personal movie in them that they just have to make, regardless of how it plays. Spielberg’s gift is that most of the movies he makes reach out to include the viewer, and THE FABELMANS is no exception. We can see that it’s personal, but it feels like it’s meant for us as well.

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