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‘The Fabelmans,’ Spielberg’s semi-autobiographical film, rules

"The Fabelmans," legendary director Steven Spielberg's latest film, is a semi-autobiographical tale through childhood, divorce and filmmaking passion.
"The Fabelmans," legendary director Steven Spielberg's latest film, is a semi-autobiographical tale through childhood, divorce and filmmaking passion.

Despite having one of the most memorable film careers in Hollywood and 14 Academy Award nominations, Steven Spielberg has won just three Oscars, with only one of them being for Best Director. With his latest film “The Fabelmans,” the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences would have to be — put bluntly — stupid not to give him at least one more win.

“The Fabelmans” is incredible, but that’s not surprising for a Spielberg film. He directed some of the best films of the last 50 years: “Jaws,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial,” “Jurassic Park,” “Schindler’s List,” “Saving Private Ryan” and “Catch Me If You Can,” just to name a few.

However, these great films will need to make room for “The Fabelmans” because it’s easily a top-five Spielberg movie.

Spielberg’s urge to make this film came during the COVID-19 pandemic as some of his children were coming to stay with him, and he had time off from directing to think about his prolific career.

“I started thinking, what’s the one story I haven’t told that I’d be really mad at myself if I don’t?” Spielberg said in an interview with the New York Times.

Spielberg co-wrote the film with frequent collaborator Tony Kushner, making this one of only three films he has written.

Spielberg has frequently used the idea of the family as a core part of his films, but he never uses it as personally as he does in “The Fabelmans.” The film, inspired by Spielberg’s own life, depicts the childhood of the fictional Sammy Fabelman as he grows up in a Jewish household, in the ’50s and ’60s, trying to make films amid his family’s shifting dynamics.

Gabriel LaBelle stars as Sammy, with Mateo Zoryan portraying a younger version of the character. I usually hate child actors, but LaBelle does a fantastic job here.

The film starts right as Sammy falls in love with the cinema. His parents take him to see his first movie, Cecil B. DeMille’s “The Greatest Show on Earth.” Sammy becomes enamored with the picture and asks for a model train set for Hanukkah to recreate the movie’s train crash.

His mother lets him use his father’s camera to record the train crash, and Sammy falls in love with making movies. Throughout the first half of “The Fabelmans,” Sammy continues to make films, inspired by what he watches at the theaters.

However, Sammy is divided by his two parents. Sammy’s mother Mitzi, played by Michelle Williams, is a musician, and she pushes Sammy to pursue his filmmaking. 

On the other hand, Sammy’s father Burt, played by Paul Dano, does not accept Sammy’s affinity for film as easily as Mitzi. Burt, a very technical man, refers to Sammy’s filmmaking as a hobby, never fully supporting the idea of Sammy growing up to become a director.

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Both Williams and Dano do some of their best work in “The Fabelmans.” The rest of the film’s stellar supporting cast also does a great job, especially Seth Rogen playing Benny, a friend of the family. Benny brings charm to the family in ways that Mitzi and Burt are unable to, although he also creates tension.

My two favorite performances in this movie, though, each last for only one scene. The first is Judd Hirsch, who visits the Fabelman family after Mitzi’s mother dies. In his emotional scene, Hirsch delivers a vigorous speech to Sammy about what it means to make art, inspiring Sammy when he’s not feeling passionate about making a film for his mom.

The other performance is played very straight and features an actor who wouldn’t easily be seen in the role.

David Lynch plays director John Ford in a scene at the end of the film, based on a real event that happened to Spielberg. The scene is one of the most hilarious moments in the film and gives another perspective on what it means to make art.

Frankly, I have been disappointed in Spielberg’s latest streak of films, although that’s partially because I have such high standards for him. He did OK with his attempt to make a musical with “West Side Story,” but I still felt it was lacking. It’s nice to see him make another hit with “The Fabelmans.”

The film premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival this year and won the People’s Choice Award. It had a limited release on Nov. 11 and a wider, but still fairly-limited release, on Nov. 24.

Even though “The Fabelmans” won’t be playing in as many theaters as films such as “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” this holiday season, do yourself a favor and travel a little bit further to see this most excellent film.

Rating: 9/10