The most telling shot in The Fabelmans comes during a family argument. Sammy Fabelman (played by Gabriel LaBelle) spends most of Steven Spielberg’s new film watching his parents’ marriage come apart, but in one pivotal moment, he sees a strange vision that transcends mundane drama. It’s Sammy himself, reflected in a living-room mirror while filming his family; he holds a camera in front of his face like a force field. The image is powerful and expressionistic, from a director who rarely allows things to get so dreamy. It’s also a lancing bit of self-critique: Even as traumatic events play out in front of him, Sammy is wondering how he’d shoot them in the movie version of his life.
Sammy is a semi-autobiographical stand-in for Spielberg, and The Fabelmans is easily the most personal movie the director has ever made. The film follows Sammy from ages 7 to 18, as his observant Jewish family moves from New Jersey to Arizona to California. Sammy falls deeper in love with moviemaking while he reckons with the growing tension between his parents, Mitzi (Michelle Williams) and Burt (Paul Dano). The Fabelmans defies easy categorization. Viewers expecting a stirring childhood memoir about the power of cinema may be surprised at how bittersweet and raw the story actually is. But that vulnerability is what makes the film a triumph.
Spielberg co-wrote the movie with his frequent collaborator Tony Kushner, who has helped generate some of the director’s most impressive and challenging material in recent years—Munich, Lincoln, and West Side Story. Like those projects, The Fabelmans has a dark, sharp edge. The opening sequence suggests pure heart-tugging nostalgia. Sammy’s parents take him to see The Greatest Show on Earth. The young boy watches in awe as two trains crash into each other. Soon enough, he’s crashing his own model train sets and filming the action, the first sign of a budding director’s eye.
But when Mitzi digs into why her son is so compelled to smash his toys together on camera, she finds that he’s primarily trying to overcome his fear of those images, rather than trying to re-create their cheap thrill. That impulse recurs throughout The Fabelmans. Sammy is gifted with a genuine visual sense that will one day turn his budding hobby into a robust career. But early on, he deploys it not to please crowds but to help process his emotions—to put some distance between himself and a world that is often frightening or confusing.
In many ways, Sammy’s life looks like a Leave It to Beaver–esque paradise. He has three chatty sisters who are happy to act in his home movies; a soft-spoken but caring computer-engineer dad whose career success moves the family to bigger and nicer houses; and a mother who is fun, accepting, and overflowing with love. Spielberg’s portrait of his parents is steeped in close observation. Dano and Williams give rich performances, but Mitzi is undeniably the more fascinating character, a bubbly housewife who is constantly bumping up against the rigid expectations of prim 1950s domesticity.
Mitzi is a gifted piano player, and she encourages Sammy’s interest in the arts. She’s spellbound by the amateur movies he makes with his high-school friends (many of which are inspired by Spielberg’s own teenage oeuvre). But her supportiveness belies her insecurities and regrets, and her character is given to extreme mood swings and impulsiveness. In one scene, she comes home with a monkey she’s bought from a pet store because she “needed a laugh”; another time, she packs the kids into the car and drives them toward a tornado out of sheer reckless interest.
Williams offers an energetic and complicated portrayal of a person who clearly mattered immensely to Spielberg. Dano is equally good as Burt, but plays him as far more withdrawn. Both of Spielberg’s real-life parents died in the past few years; his father, Arnold, passed away at the age of 103 in 2020. I can’t help but wonder if that was the impetus for the director to finally plumb his own memories in such a direct way. For years, absent parents and troubled children have populated Spielberg’s films, but The Fabelmans tells the story of the divorce that shredded his family in notably exacting detail.
The key fracture occurs when Sammy realizes his mother’s relationship with Burt’s best friend, Bennie (Seth Rogen), is uncomfortably intimate. By making home movies, Sammy gets a more candid look at this dynamic, and at his parents in general. Throughout The Fabelmans, Sammy’s adeptness with the camera grants him new insights, but they’re often troubling ones that drive him further into his editing bay to escape them. Spielberg’s storytelling has plenty of humor and verve, but it has a devastating sense of self-awareness as well. In focusing on a boy who puts a camera between himself and the world, Spielberg essays both the power in that perspective, and the limitations.