The Fabelmans review: Spielberg returns with the most personal work of his long career

4 mins read

Steven Spielberg has returned to the silver screen with his long-awaited semi-autobiographical, The Fabelmans, which was released in the United States under a year after his adaptation of West Side Story.

Spielberg had considered the project as early as the late 90s, however, he re-considered exploring his family’s history due to concerns about the emotional impact of such a film on his parents. The project was abandoned until roughly 20 years later, when Spielberg returned to the project with his screenwriter and frequent collaborator, Tony Kushner, while working on the critical darling West Side Story.

The Fabelmans – loosely based on Spielberg’s own adolescence – is told through the eyes of Sammy Fabelman, a young man with a passion for filmmaking and how the power of films helps him see the reality and truth of his increasingly dysfunctional family and those around him.

While Spielberg’s films through the decades have touched heavily on themes of divorce (E.T: The Extra Terrestrial) and family (think about Alan Gran’s character arc in Jurassic Park), none of his films have explicitly confronted the issues quite like The Fabelmans does. Here it is the central conflict of the film. Sammy must deal with tensions at home while navigating school and his budding film-making career.

None of the main characters in The Fablemans are real; however, the events are almost parallel to Spielberg’s real-life experiences, as his parents really did divorce when he was only 19, and the marriage really began to break down after a move from Arizona to California, similar to the film. Spielberg’s mother Adler had really struck up a real-life affair with her husband’s best friend Bernie. Spielberg blamed his father for the divorce and didn’t speak to him for a further 15 years.

If this were to be Spielberg’s final project, he has ended it on a note which perfectly envelops his career.

The beauty of The Fabelmans doesn’t only come from its beautiful camera work, which feels like a culmination of all of Spielberg’s cinematic trickery from throughout his career. It comes in the form of its brilliant performances: everyone is in top-form, especially Gabriel LaBelle (Sammy) and Seth Rogen (Bennie), who gives a rare dramatic performance with weight, showing range some may never have thought he has.

Beauty is also found in how it contextualizes the director’s career as a whole. His parents’ divorce had a rippling impact on his career, with absent fathers, or father-son tension being a thematic point in many of his works, including Close Encounters of The Third Kind, War of the Worlds, and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. It really is a testament to how film can help one deal with the frustrations & complexity of everyday life and how real-life experiences can shape a director’s projects.

The Fabelmans also perfectly demonstrates the romance film buffs have with the medium. It starts out small – you see a film as a kid, whatever that may be. For this reviewer, it was The Wizard of Oz (1939). And it quickly becomes weekly trips to the cinema. And then wanting to be a filmmaker. And grows and grows from there.

The most magical moments of the film really are the ones focused on film-making – whether it’s Sammy directing a war film, or watching back moments from his family camping trip.

As Spielberg himself put it: “Every time I go to a movie, it’s magic,” and in The Fabelmans he tells us why.

Featured Image Credit: Universal Pictures

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