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The Fabelmans Review

November 11, 2022 | Posted by Jeffrey Harris
The Fabelmans Image Credit: Universal Pictures
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The Fabelmans Review  

Directed By: Steven Spielberg
Written By: Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner
Runtime: 151 minutes
MPA Rating: Rated PG-13 for some strong language, thematic elements, brief violence and drug use.

Gabriel LaBelle – Sammy Fabelman
Michelle Williams – Mitzi Fabelman
Paul Dano – Burt Fabelman
Seth Rogen – Bennie Loewy
Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord – Younger Sammy Fabelman
Keeley Karsten – Natalie Fabelman
Julia Butters – Reggie Fabelman
Sophia Kopera – Lisa Fabelman
Sam Rechner – Logan Hall
Oakes Fegley – Chad Thomas
Chloe East – Monica Sherwood
Judd Hirsch – Uncle Boris

Director Steven Spielberg explores his nostalgic youth in the new semi-autobiographical period drama, The Fabelmans. Spielberg re-teams with longtime collaborator Tony Kushner for their latest film about a young boy who aspires to become a director.

The film begins in the 1950s with young Sammy Fabelman is part of a working-class Jewish family living in New Jersey with parents Burt (Dano) and Mitzi (Williams) Fabelman. Sammy’s parents take the boy to his first movie at a tender age, and his imagination takes hold. His father is an electrical engineer and budding computer scientist, while his mother is more of an artistic type, a concert pianist who also dabbles in music composition. Sammy clearly inherited something from both: his father’s smarts and understanding of how things work, along with his mother’s spark of creativity and imagination.

After Burt uproots his family to Phoenix, Arizona, Sammy grows into his teen years and pursues his passion for filmmaking. He puts together his own amateur movie shoots with the help of his Boy Scout troop. Mitzi is more nurturing of Sammy’s talent, and Burt is supportive, though he sees Sammy’s passion as a hobby. While making homemade family movies, Sammy discovers a terrible secret that threatens to tear his loving family apart.

As a semi-autobiographical family drama, The Fabelmans has its moments. It has various slice-of-life moments that look and feel very authentic, yet it meanders a lot. At over two-and-a-half hours, Kushner’s script is heavily padded. Also, the story ends just as it looks like Sammy’s story is about to become more interesting. Perhaps Spielberg is leaving the later exploits of his young adulthood and early years in the movie business for another project down the road. The structure could have done with significant tightening.

Most of the conflict comes from a forbidden love affair between Mitzi Fabel and a family friend, Benny (Rogen), which creates discord in the family. The romance causes resentment between Sammy and his mother and a more subtle form of dissension within the family unit. Spielberg and Kushner attempt to create ambiguity regarding the issue of whether Burt is aware that he’s being cuckolded by his wife and best friend right under his nose. However, the implication appears to be rather obvious.

Paul Dano is a talented performer, but his performance in The Fabelmans lacks a certain authenticity. From his voice to his demeanor, there is a genuine quality missing from Burt Fabelman. Dano almost appears to be channeling Jimmy Stewart in his vocal inflection, mannerisms, and performance, and it falls short.

Michelle Williams is far more believable in the role of Mitzi Fabelman, and her complex relationship with her son is the movie’s emotional center. In many ways, Mitzi is Sammy’s artistic muse in the early days of his burgeoning filmmaking youth, so it’s difficult for him to cope with his mother’s secret.

However, Burt Fabelman is not a detractor of his son’s gifts and talents. While he might not be as nurturing as Mitzi, and largely views it as a hobby, he does support Sammy’s dreams and even aids in buying Sammy an editing machine.

Judd Hirsch has a small, pivotal role in the film as Sammy’s Uncle Boris. He appears for a short visit and offers sage wisdom at a key moment in Sammy’s life. Hirsch is such a natural talent, and his chance to shine is one of the film’s most entertaining scenes. His big scene is second only to a scene-stealing cameo.

The second half of The Fabelmans focuses on Sammy enduring high school life as he contends with teenage jocks and antisemitic bullies after his family moves to Northern California, where Burt gets a new job at IBM. While the jocks are ruthless to Sammy, he finds some solace after falling head over heels for Monica Sherwood (East), a somewhat wild, yet devoutly religious, Christian girl. She is attracted to Sammy and is intrigued with his Judaism, and she’s excited for the opportunity to finally date a Jewish boy.

In portraying a younger teenage version of Steven Spielberg, lead Gabriel LaBelle does a fine job. He takes on the dramatic material well. LaBelle is convincing in the journey of a young kid seeking to find the truth in his art and face its challenges. Sammy’s art is the magical world of film. So, it’s nice to see that spark of inspiration start from his childhood and carry over into his teens and young adulthood, enduring the heartache that comes with it. These moments are the best parts of The Fabelmans.

The final score: review Average
The 411
The Fabelmans is not one of Steven Spielberg's best films, but it does have some decent performances and ideas. It suffers from a meandering script that largely loses focus in its second half. Gabriel LaBelle does a remarkable job embodying a younger, teenage version of Steven Spielberg pursuing his passion, and Michelle Williams is also strong as Sammy's mother Mitzi. However, much of the conflict feels relatively forced. The Fabelmans sputters to the end with an abrupt finish, rather than concluding at a stronger moment. The overall experience is heavily padded and could have used some tightening in the editing room. However, the exploits of Sammy Fabelman and his family are not entirely devoid of charming, endearing moments.