The Fabelmans (Paul Dano, Michelle Williams, Gabriel LaBelle, Judd Hirsch) – As my wife left the theater, she said “I loved that movie.” The last two films we said that about were CODA and, before that, La La Land.
In the 2017 HBO documentary, Spielberg, the celebrated director talked about his evolution from a bullied child to film empresario. The Fabelmans tells Spielberg’s stylized version of his own childhood. Told as a coming-of-age story, it’s an honest homage to his family, who nurtured and shaped the life of this would-be genius.
In a very real sense, The Fabelmans is a personality-driven period piece. Growing up in New Jersey, then Arizona and in Silicon Valley in the mid-1950s and ‘60s, Sammy Fabelman (Gabriel LaBelle) is a normal kid despite his upbringing. His father, Burt (Paul Dano), is a brilliant scientist/engineer who works for big-tech companies before that term even existed. He’s career driven but takes time for his family, mostly to teach life’s lessons through facts and explanation. His mother, Mitzi (Michelle Williams) is loving, flighty, artistic, and devoted. She gave up a possible career as a concert pianist for her family.
For fans of the TV series, The Goldbergs, you will recognize Sam as Adam Goldberg with dreams of making movies rather than television shows. But Mitzi Fabelman is nothing like Beverly Goldberg. She isn’t clingy or outrageous. Rather, she is encouraging and nurturing.
The Fabelmans are Jewish and live in a time after World War II when Jews in this country tended to stay in distinct sections of large cities. Even post-Hitler, antisemitism was still common in America. The Fabelmans were almost always the only Jews in the neighborhood. And while they were proud of their heritage and their customs, they sought assimilation.
Spielberg opens the movie with the Fabelmans standing in line to see the 1952 film, The Greatest Show on Earth. Little Sammy is immediately hooked. Fascinated by the crash of a locomotive, he takes a new train set that he gets for Chanukah and tries to recreate it. That causes family havoc. Mom comes up with the idea of filming the simulated crash with dad’s movie camera. Voila! Sammy becomes obsessed with film.
Sammy wants to make a career out of this hobby. Dad does not approve; his son needs to be a doctor, a lawyer, or other professional. But mom, Uncle Boris (Judd Hirsch in a marvelous cameo), and the ever-present “Uncle” Benny (Seth Rogen) support the passion of young Sammy.
The kid shoots everything, particularly family events, which exposes a revelatory moment that heightens the family drama. Undeterred, Sam commits to his cinematic dreams while trying to adjust to high school. It is here that he faces antisemitism, bullying, and ostracism. But he also attracts his first girlfriend, a shiksa, who is fascinated with Sam’s Jewishness and commits to getting Sammy to accept Jesus. Of course, all he wants is … well, you know.
Spielberg, always the master, weaves this story with sparkling optimism despite some bitter sweetness. Because we know that Sammy (as the young Spielberg) turns out to be extraordinarily successful, we never feel like The Fabelmans will degenerate into sadness.
The movie winks at Spielberg’s future storytelling of wide-eyed wonderment, sense of adventure, cunning playfulness, family dynamics, and Jewish identity.
Spielberg cast the film like he was casting his family and it shows. Paul Dano, one of those actors who never gives a bad performance while always playing oddballs, hits just the right notes as Burt Fabelman. Michele Williams, who seems to earn an Oscar nomination for every part she plays (she has four), captures Mitzi’s flightiness and conflicts, with perfect pitch. And young Gabriel LaBelle has the hardest job, capturing Spielberg’s temperament, zeal, thirst, and emotional ride.
The Fabelmans is, by movie standards, a “little movie” with big aspirations and a charm that will make you smile and say, “I love that movie.”