‘The Fabelmans’ is Spielberg’s fictionalized tale of growing up, becoming filmmaker


Merie Weismiller Wallace/Univers

Gabriel LaBelle as Sammy Fabelman in The Fabelmans, co-written, produced and directed by Steven Spielberg.

Cate Marquis, Special to the Jewish Light

Steven Spielberg looks back on his childhood, and when he fell in love with moviemaking, as well as his parents’ marriage, in the semi-autobiographical “The Fabelmans.” The story is by turns funny, touching and heartbreaking, as the son grows up, and his determination to make movies grows along with him, and as his parents’ marriage falls apart.

Spielberg co-wrote the script with Tony Kushner (who also co-wrote “Munich” with the director), and with music by John Williams this is a very Spielberg movie.

“The Fabelmans” starts out with 6-year-old Sammy Fabelman (Mateo Zoryon Francis-Deford), a stand-in for the young Spielberg, standing in line to see his very first movie, Cecil B. DeMille’s “The Greatest Show On Earth” with his parents Mitzi (Michelle Williams) and Burt (Paul Dano) Fabelman. Young Sammy is not too sure about this experience because he is afraid of the dark. It does not help that his mother describes movies as “like dreams” — which Sammy quickly notes can sometimes be scary — in her efforts to reassure him. She then reminds Sammy that he loves the circus, so she is sure he will love this movie. If you have seen this epic, you know it is less a light comedy than a dramatic epic, with a showstopping scene of a circus train wreck.

The parents obviously expected a different, lighter kind of movie, and they are nervous about Sammy’s reaction. Sammy does indeed seem stunned afterwards, but it is because he wants to know how they filmed that train wreck scene. When Hanukkah comes, Sammy receives an electric train set, which is destined for a train wreck reenactment. When his mother hands him a home movie camera so he can record it, a passion is born.

The film follows Sammy’s early efforts at making movies, as he grows up with his three sisters and his parents. His brilliant engineer/inventor is working at the cutting edge of the new computer industry development, while his creative mother is a talented pianist who gave up her dreams of the concert stage to raise her family. His father’s soaring career takes them from the suburbs of New Jersey to Arizona, and then northern California. As the family moves, so does ever-present family friend, and Burt’s co-worker, Bennie Loewy (Seth Rogen).

Sammy’s fascination with making movies is encouraged actively by his artistic mother, but it puzzles his science-minded father. While Burt is supportive of his son, he sees his moviemaking as a hobby he will grow out of, and he clearly hopes his son will follow in his footsteps into science.

(From left) Burt Fabelman (Paul Dano), Younger Sammy Fabelman (Mateo Zoryan Francis-DeFord) and Mitzi Fabelman (Michelle Williams) in The Fabelmans, co-written, produced and directed by Steven Spielberg. (Merie Weismiller Wallace/Univers)

This film is a beautifully constructed family story, with humor and heartbreak. For any kid who grew up making little movies (or knew one who did), this film is pure catnip. But it is also a universal coming-of-age story for anyone who grew up in the latter half of the 20th century. The filmmaking sequences are among the most fun and magical, but also serve to punctuate moments in the family’s story, as well as illuminate young Sammy’s growth as he approaches adulthood.

While the family’s Jewish identity is always present in the story, they seem to live in areas where there are few other Jews around, as they move from place to place. In New Jersey, they drive home through a subdivision full of houses decorated with Christmas lights, until they reach their unlit house, but later we see a festive menorah in the window as the family celebrates Hanukkah. By the time the family reaches northern California, Burt’s career is peaking, but the family finds themselves in very different territory from New Jersey — now in a place where Sammy comments that “there are hardly any Jews.” Here antisemitism rears its head, when Sammy is confronted by a hate-filled fellow student in high school, and that antisemitism haunts him through his high school years.

Williams and Dano are marvelous as Sammy’s parents, two good people but completely mismatched, except for their love of their children. Neither Williams not Dano are Jewish but there are Jewish cast members. Judd Hirsch is a comic highlight playing Mitzi’s oddball Uncle Boris, who comes to visit at one point, telling tales of working in early movies, and having a profound effect on Sammy. Rogen plays Bennie, who is largely based on Spielberg’s favorite uncle. Jeannie Berlin is excellent as Burt’s mother Haddash Fabelman — “This is brisket?” she asks after marching into Mitzi’s kitchen and opening her oven door to inspect the meal.

Two young actors play Sammy. Mateo Zoryon Francis-Deford is cute as little Sammy, and as the teenager, Gabriel LaBelle delivers a fine, strong performance. Also very good are the girls playing Sammy’s two older sisters (played by Julia Butters and Keeley Karsten), who are his companions in in his early moviemaking attempts.

“The Fabelmans” is a lovely love letter to film-making and to Spielberg’s family, with a message about parenting and what matters in life. This film is well constructed, weaving together Sammy’s moviemaking and growing up, with what is happening to his parents’ marriage in a cohesive tale of family life. The family’s Judaism is always present in the story, but not always at the forefront. Instead it is woven into the fabric of their lives in a very natural way, giving it a warm sense of ordinary, which is very pleasing.

‘The Fabelmans’

Opened Nov. 23 in area theaters

Rated PG-13

Running time: 2:30