Grade:  A-


Rated PG-13

The Fabelmans was promoted as a “semi-autobiographical story loosely based on Spielberg’s adolescence,” but after Steven Spielberg’s November 2022 New York Times interview, the term “biopic” seems more appropriate. As it turns out, all of the major and memorable events happened pretty much as they were depicted in this 2022 film, which earned seven Oscar nominations. That includes a memorable scene where a timed young aspiring filmmaker meets the great, gruff John Ford in his office.

Even without labeling, audiences would have picked up on at least one similarity between the boy in the film and the famous director’s work:  a scene with boy scouts reminiscent of a sequence from the third Indiana Jones film. In fact, Spielberg recreated exactly the first short films that he made, including one he made with his boy scout troop to earn his photography merit badge.

The Fabelmans (fable-man’s) are an eccentric Jewish family that’s split down the middle of their collective brain. The mother, Mitzi (Best Actress nominee Michelle Williams), is a creative right-brained talent ruled by passion and imagination. A concert pianist, she’s also a free spirit who loves life, loves to laugh, and loves to play-act. The father, Burt (Paul Dano), is a left-brained tech genius who does his best to go with the flow, despite wanting his son to make useful things, as he does does. In their own way, both parents are  creative, so it’s no wonder that Spielberg turned out to be a creative genius. The fun of this film comes from seeing how that genius was nurtured in his adolescent and teen years.

As one of Sammy Fabelman’s three younger sisters (Keeley Karsten, Julia Butters, Sophia Kopera) observes, the youth is most like his mother.

Sammy (Gabriel LaBelle) is immediately drawn to filmmaking after his parents take him to see Cecil B. DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth—alternately mesmerized and traumatized by the film’s storytelling and realistic depiction of a train crash.

Mitzi is drawn to her husband’s partner and best friend, Bennie (Seth Rogen), who does everything with the family except spend the night in the same house. Bennie is silly and a bit of a free spirit himself. Early on the audience can detect that their mutual attraction is a train wreck in the making.

What results is a fascinating coming-of-age film with a twist:  as Sammy teaches himself how to make movies, the audience learns all the ingenious things that young Spielberg did with a little budget and big ambitions. His special effects and utilization were a marvel, and he learns early that the power that a film can have—especially when it captures people in a way that can be missed or overlooked in daily life. Film can be a means of expression, it can evoke emotions in the audience, and it can reveal truths—some of them painful.

Michelle Yeoh deserved to win the Best Actress Oscar, but so, frankly, did Michelle Williams, who captivates the audience as much as she does her family . . . and Bennie. She brings life to the film in every frame she’s in. Gabriel LaBelle is also convincing as the young hero who copes with anti-Semitic taunts, bullying, parents who are drifting apart, an uncle (Judd Hirsch) who tells him he was meant to pursue his art at the expense of his family, and a first crush that ends up being a Pray-the-Jew-Away comedy in two acts.

Hirsch leans a little too close to familiar stereotypes in his performance as Uncle Boris, a former actor and circus performer, but the rest of the cast blends seamlessly into the landscapes of ‘50s and ‘60s Arizona and California. They were no doubt helped considerably by watching the home movies that Spielberg showed them and the recollections he shared so they could get a handle on how to play them. As Paul Dano said, “For somebody like Steven to share that much of himself with us—with the audience too—it was really a profound experience.

Knowing that this is the life story of one of the great directors of all time—the man who gave us Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, The Color Purple, Jurassic Park, Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan, War Horse, Lincoln, The Post, and West Side Story—makes an already compelling film even more so. The average viewers will make connections to many of their favorite Spielberg films, and appreciate them (and this biopic—there, I said it) all the more.

The late Roger Ebert once said, “No good film is too long,” and that almost applies to The Fabelmans, a 2.5 hour film that might prompt many people to head for the snack counter or restrooms or just stretch their legs. Some of the scenes might go on a bit long, but it’s an interesting, episodic story that covers a lot of ground: the breakup of a marriage, prejudice, a painful relocation, a first love, and, most of all, the development of a filmmaker. In the end, you’re apt to forgive Spielberg his one excess:  trying to make a biopic that does justice to his own interesting life and amazing career.

Entire family:  No (junior high age and older)

Run time:  251 min. Color

Aspect ratio:  1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen

Featured audio:  Dolby TrueHD 7.1

Bonus features:  B

Includes:  Blu-ray, DVD, Digital Code

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Rated PG-13 for some strong language, thematic elements, brief violence and drug use

Language: 5/10—1 f-bomb plus a peck of lesser swearwords

Sex:  3/10—Just the start of a teen make-out session, an embrace and hand-holding as signs of an affair, plus Sammy’s mom dances nude in a see-through dress (though all the audience sees is the outline of her shape)

Violence: 3/10—A character is pushed and punched in the face (nose bloodied), and an adult slaps a teen across the face; it hardly counts, but the young director films a war movie with realistic blood and gore from his high school “actors” not that severe because we see the secret behind the screen magician’s tricks

Adult situations:  3/10—Social drinking and smoking, plus the sadness of anti-Semitic bullying and a marriage on the rocks

Takeaway:  Spielberg said he almost abandoned his dream of being a filmmaker after seeing Lawrence of Arabia, thinking he could never reach the heights that David Lean did in that film. But he has done so a number of times, even if he fell just shy of perfection with this one