Spielberg's 'The Fabelmans' more like a journal than a story


Tell me if you have heard this one before:

As he's dealing with the reality of his parent's divorce, a little boy discovers another world, filled with wonder.

The ultimate action hero becomes as weak as any man under the scrutinizing eyes of his brilliant father.

A gifted father's obsession drives his wife to leave him, taking their young children with her.

A little boy goes on an epic quest, wanting only to experience the safety and comfort of home and a parent's love.

These are all emotional arcs from Steven Spielberg movies, as well as key moments from Spielberg's latest feature, a semi-autobiographical origin story of his life, The Fabelmans.


Serving as both autobiography and exposé, Spielberg gets personal, sharing details of his life and how that impacted his artistic journey, using the Fabelman clan as avatars for him and his family. With contributions by frequent Spielberg collaborators writer Tony Kushner, composer John Williams, and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, all the pieces that make up a perfect picture seem lined up for success. So does The Fabelmans deliver on that promise?

Not completely. While The Fabelmans certainly includes helpings of that Spielberg magic, the story never feels cohesive. It lacks a throughline to tie all the threads together. The point gets lost in the many episodic chapters that Spielberg shoves into this memoir. To make this worse, in the last few years, the cinematic landscape has been flooded with nostalgic coming-of-age stories set in midcentury America. The novelty has worn off just enough for The Fabelmans to seem like one of many Ikea knockoffs, when Spielberg made a brand out of being like no one else. Inevitably, all of these stories contain awkward but lovable families, a strong sense of a time and place, and a child struggling to make sense of it all.

[L-R]: Paul Dano as BURT FABELMAN, Michelle Williams as MITZI FABELMAN

At its best, The Fabelmans shows how Spielberg fell in love with moviemaking as a vehicle for creating the life you want through editing. Young Sammy Fabelmans discovers the wonder of cinema after going to his first movie theater to watch The Greatest Show on Earth. The experiences terrifies and fascinates him, and he can't rest until he recreates the train wreck scene using a toy train and his family's 8 mm camera. His mother wisely gleans that doing this offers an outlet for Sammy to control the images that now haunt him. He can literally become the creator of his own world.

As the progeny of an engineer (Paul Dano is Burt Fabelman) and a pianist (Michelle Williams is Mitzi Fabelman), Sammy's brain holds two these seemingly disparate worlds in perfect harmony, supplementing his imagination with the tools to bring these dreams to life. Young Sammy is played by Mateo Zoryan and later by Gabrielle LaBelle. Zoryan has little time on screen, but LaBelle hits the right notes in his performance, communicating much with a facial expression or downward glance. In one of the most devastating and powerful sequences, Sammy discovers a stomach-churning family secret on film. He's curating a home movie to capture a camping vacation. We watch as he watches the film reel, going forward and backwards, watching in slow motion and at regular speed. He's gutted, but like the trainwreck that he created as a child, his power as an editor allows him to control the chaos, understand it, and make the movie he wants to see.


The beginning of a movie often sets the tone, and ultimately, that's the weakest part of the film. I couldn't follow the emotional arcs of the characters and identify what they were feeling. This later solidifies in the mid and latter portions of the film but is sorely lacking in the clunky beginning. Perhaps this puts us in the perspective of young Sammy himself, who saw that things at home were not quite right yet couldn't put words to what was happening. 

The Fabelmans will likely become a mirror for many filmmakers, and artists who feel misunderstood by their loved ones may enjoy the comfort of feeling seen. Spielberg definitely deserves a movie about his life – if only it didn't try to tackle so many parts of it in one movie. If you look at Spielberg's most successful pictures, the action stays focused on a particular incident, and the family drama lingers in the background. A shark attacks a town, a platoon rescues one soldier, Indiana Jones looks for an artifact. Here the family drama steps up front and center, and the overall story gets lost in the shuffle.

I wanted a film about Spielberg's formative artistry. And it's there, but hidden in the muddle of this movie. 

Release info: In theaters November 23, 2022

Final score: 3.5 out of 5