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The Fabelmans – Film Review


the fabelmans film review

Steven Spielberg’s movies are a lot of things, but they’re rarely intimate or personal – not in a way that would reveal much about the film-maker, anyway. The Fabelmans is an outlier in that sense. It’s an autobiographical movie from someone who leans towards a biography – Lincoln and Schindler’s List being the first to come to mind – and we wonder why it’s taken thirty-four movies for Spielberg to turn the camera on himself.

In the lead-up to the 2023 Oscars, a lot of the commentary around The Fabelmans (aside from it not winning anything) was that it was a love-letter to cinema. What surprised us, watching The Fabelmans so late (the UK has been slow to receive this one), is that the description is only partial. There is definitely a big-hearted, embracing love for film-making in The Fabelmans, but that adoration is overshadowed by Spielberg’s love for his family. It’s there in the title: this is what we see or don’t see when we view them.

The Fabelmans is told from the perspective of Sammy Fabelman, who begins the movie by going to the cinema for the first time. It turns out to be an action flick, and Sammy is half-stunned by the experience, half-scared out of his wits. A train crash gives him the willies, yet he asks for a train set for Hanukkah. It turns out to be a method of controlling the fear: he crashes the trains over and over again to diminish the threat. His mum, Mitzi (Michelle Williams) understands. She gets him a camera to film the crash, and they watch the footage from the safety of a bedroom closet. 

Filmmaking becomes Sammy’s drug. He’s recording everything, from home-made horror movies to vacations. The family gets roped in, as his sisters become the actors and his mum flits in and out of frame. Only his dad, Burt (Paul Dano) remains skeptical, as he’s a programmer at a time when computers are only just arriving on the scene. He hopes for a more academic path for Sammy, and treats the filmmaking as a fad. It’ll pass – he hopes. 

The Fabelmans uses Sammy and his camera as both a lens and a catalyst for some schisms in the family. His mum, an entertainer herself, sees Sammy expressing himself in a way that she couldn’t. Burt sees himself as the leader of the family who’s being undermined. But the real upheaval comes from what Sammy records with the camera, as it finds truth that the family wouldn’t have seen otherwise. Through the films Sammy makes, the family sunders and the movies become a document of that breaking. 

It’s a clever dichotomy: the camera makes Sammy complete but increasingly shatters his family. Attempting to become a director seems to be a selfish act, and the question gets asked repeatedly about whether that selfishness and personal expression is a right or good thing. You might not have come to an answer by the end. 

For a personal portrait with such a deep, rich message, we were surprised to find ourselves at an emotional arm’s length throughout. The Fabelmans is such a clever movie, and we wanted to get swept up in it, but we found ourselves feeling disconnected. 

Part of that’s down to the direction. The Fabelmans is filmed like a movie from Spielberg’s childhood. The performances – particularly Michelle Williams’s – are big (too big), theatrical and clearly played for the camera. The sound design feels like it was made on a sound stage, with every rustle of clothing or creak of a door pushed to the front of the audio mix. Even Sammy’s contact lenses look fake. Across all the crafts, The Fabelmans is stagey, and we found that to be inauthentic in emotional terms. It felt like we were watching a performance rather than a window into Spielberg’s life. 

In a way, The Fabelmans felt like a continuation of Spielberg’s West Side Story. It’s a period piece that has the choreography and craft of a musical, just without the musical numbers. We half expected Mitzi to break into song when the music and emotions reached a peak. But where it worked for West Side Story, it struggles under the sincerity of The Fabelmans. The autobiography and the phoniness feel at odds. 

That’s not to say that The Fabelmans is a bad movie, or one that’s not worth experiencing. As with so many lesser Spielberg movies, there are still moments that are absolutely sensational. We’re not going to forget the ending sequence for a while: it’s a punchline that lands perfectly. The aftermath of a prom is pure brilliance, as two characters unravel in the presence of each other, trying to work out why a home-movie affected them so deeply. And there are performances that make their mark. Judd Hirsch as Uncle Boris is pure Supporting Actor fodder. He turns up for five minutes, lecturing about the importance of creating, and threatens to carry the film away under his arm. 

The Fabelmans suggests that there may be greater truth in front of the camera than behind it. What muddies the message is that so much of what Spielberg has filmed in The Fabelmans feels fabricated. It has a fauxness that kept us emotionally detached. It’s hard to feel at home with The Fabelmans when they never quite feel real. 

But while The Fabelmans may not be a bearing of Spielberg’s soul, it’s still an inordinately clever movie. It feels like an artifact of its period, a scream from the rafters about why filmmaking is so important, and a scrapbook of great moments. The result isn’t his best, by any means, but a Spielbergian misstep is never less than engrossing.


  • Feels like a missing movie from the ‘60s
  • At its best when it’s singing the praise of cinema
  • A few moments that will linger in the memory
  • Theatrical direction creates an emotional disconnect
  • Some overwrought performances
  • Delivers a mixed message
  • Purchased by TXH
  • Running time and release date - 2hr 30mins | 2022
  • To rent/buy - No rent / $19.99 SD, HD, UHD
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<b>Pros:</b> <ul> <li>Feels like a missing movie from the ‘60s</li> <li>At its best when it’s singing the praise of cinema</li> <li>A few moments that will linger in the memory</li> </ul> <b>Cons:</b> <ul> <li>Theatrical direction creates an emotional disconnect</li> <li>Some overwrought performances</li> <li>Delivers a mixed message</li> </ul> <b>Info:</b> <ul> <li>Purchased by TXH</li> <li>Running time and release date - 2hr 30mins | 2022 <li>To rent/buy - No rent / $19.99 SD, HD, UHD</li> </ul>The Fabelmans - Film Review
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