The dreams and secrets of The Fabelmans

By Stephen Aspeling30 April 2024

The dreams and secrets of The Fabelmans

Filmmaking legend Steven Spielberg needs no introduction but having led such a long and varied career it still helps to have a reminder of just how truly great he is. Having made some of the most iconic and beloved films of all-time, it’s no wonder film school students cite his movies as their inspiration. Jaws, E.T., Raiders of the Lost Ark, Jurassic Park, Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan are just a few of the notches in his director’s chair and being nominated for seven Academy Awards including Best Picture and Best Director, The Fabelmans proves he’s far from done. 

Having come up with the semi-biographical concept for The Fabelmans in 1999, the movie was put on ice due to concerns around his mother and father being hurt, in spite of nagging him to make it. Now dedicated to his parents who have since passed, Spielberg revisited the idea in 2019, eventually co-writing and directing the film with Tony Kushner. Inspired by childhood memories, many that he lived and inspired his career as a young filmmaker, The Fabelmans journeys through the eyes of young Sammy Fabelman in post-World War II America. 

Gabriel LaBelle plays Sammy Fabelman in The Fabelmans on Showmax

A family portrait, the film centres on that time when a young person starts to see their parents as human beings. The Fabelmans begins in his boyhood as Sammy’s inspired to recreate a scene from a movie called The Greatest Show on Earth that leaves an indelible impression. From this point, the Fabelman family shifts gears through a series of life-defining moments. Trying to keep it together, they relocate across the continent as Sammy’s father takes up new jobs as a pioneer computer engineer and his talented yet tempestuous mother struggles with grief. 

The Fabelmans on Showmax

Spielberg’s a master storyteller and delivers on emotion, entertainment and suspense in this heartfelt memoir and ode to the love and wonder of cinema. To help realise this dream, he’s harnessed the talents of the best in Hollywood with Paul Dano, Seth Rogen, as well as Judd Hirsch and Michelle Williams, who were both nominated for Oscars. Having these dependable actors onboard serves as the perfect springboard for the plucky young Gabrielle LaBelle in the lead role as Sammy. Dano is more subdued, Rogen gets serious, Hirsch is an absolute force and Williams escalates every scene with her somewhat detached and wistful turn as Mitzi. 

As good as they are, this is Sammy’s story and LaBelle’s spirited performance captures the teenage angst of a passionate young filmmaker who is compelled on a single-minded quest in the midst of family turmoil. A vivid tale that conjures up a curious underlying tension between creating art and prioritising family, The Fabelmans is nostalgic and sentimental without becoming maudlin. 

Tapping into universal themes, it remains fiercely relevant, taking place in the 1950s through the 1960s, yet speaking to longstanding discrimination and prejudice. Making movies with and for his fellow Boy Scouts, The Fabelmans latches onto Sammy’s resourcefulness and runaway inspiration much like the films Super 8 and Rushmore did. 

The Fabelmans on Showmax

A behind-the-scenes recce on low-budget filmmaking and editing for the time, Sammy’s movie-making ability grows along with his emotional maturity. A coming-of-age drama, he’s catapulted from the comfort of Boy Scouts into a new school in another town as an outsider, forced to take it on the chin and find ways to compete with the bigger kids. It’s fascinating to see a dreamer experimenting with genre, coming up with a few tricks of his own and mastering celluloid editing techniques. 

Using upbeat pop music from the 1960s, it’s longtime Spielberg collaborator John Williams who takes responsibility for the score, composing yet another timeless theme. The piano plays a big part in The Fabelmans, blending handpicked classical music from some of the greats with a lilting score and allowing Mitzi’s playing to filter in quite seamlessly. 

The Fabelmans on Showmax

A master of atmosphere and tension, Spielberg keeps the story captivating as we gravitate from dysfunctional family dynamics to tough schoolyard politics. Moving from New Jersey, through Arizona only to settle in California … this is a coast-to-coast affair. A spirited drama, Spielberg injects a similar raw fervour for movies much like his lead character into this personal passion project. Weaving his magic into this see-sawing world, it serves as a time capsule thanks to its dedication to authenticity from automobiles to wardrobe. 

The Fabelmans on Showmax

Being described by Spielberg as being on “a very personally atomic level”, The Fabelmans hints at elements that may have helped shape other scenes from across his career, both as a producer and director. Seeing intimate moments from his childhood unfold in front of the camera made this a very emotional experience for the director. In much the same way, pivoting from the emotional trauma of a deep-rooted family secret, Sammy channels his heartbreak into the art and power of cinema. 

This is an entertaining coming-of-age drama, which while stirring manages to find a great balance between heartache and humour. A refined all-rounder, underpinned by strong performances, masterful storytelling, a smart script, firm direction and a nostalgic score – The Fabelmans is one of those high-quality life-affirming journey movies that stays with you.