“The Fablemans” is a love letter to cinema

Ella Freeman

More stories from Ella Freeman

Across the Pond
February 7, 2024

With Oscar season upon us, I want to highlight what is, in my opinion, the best movie of the year: “The Fablemans.” 

As an avid movie watcher and Steven Spielberg enthusiast, I was beyond excited for the release of “The Fablemans.” I went into this movie expecting something amazing because I have loved nearly every Spielberg movie I have watched. 

This movie not only met but exceeded my expectations. “The Fablemans” is a beautiful depiction of Steven Spielberg’s life through the eyes of a fictional character, Sammy Fableman played by Gabriel Labelle.  

“The Fablemans” tells the beautifully complex coming-of-age story of a young boy struggling with family tension while he pursues his love of film. 

The film starts by explaining Sammy’s passion for film, how he found it and how he grew up with it. As the movie progresses we start to see the cracks in Sammy’s family.

I think this movie did an amazing job of showing Sammy’s deep connection and relationship to the art of film right off the bat. 

When Sammy was very young his parents brought him to the movie theater, and immediately after the movie young Sammy wanted to recreate the feeling it gave him.

The film Sammy saw involved a huge train crash, so for Hanukkah, he asked for toy trains. He got one train for every night of Hanukkah. Sammy would sit in the basement and watch them crash, but it wasn’t enough. 

His mother, Mitzi, ended up pulling out his father’s camera to film the train’s crash, so Sammy wouldn’t break his nice toys and that’s when everything clicked for him.

After this, we see one of the first big cracks in Sammy’s family. Burt (Paul Dano), Sammy’s father, decided to move the entire family out to Arizona for his work. Mitzi (Michelle Williams) cries and begs Burt to bring his best friend Bennie (Seth Rogen) along, and he ends up being included. 

This is the first clue we get at Mitzi being, on some level, unfaithful to Burt, and not caring about how having a “family friend” living with the entire family, would affect her children or her husband. 

While all of this is happening, Sammy is deep into his filmmaking. He stays up late making storyboards and recruiting his friends to act.

For one of his first big film showings at a boy scout meeting, he created an old western story. Immediately he watched it back and thought about how fake it looked. From the beginning, Sammy was so in tune with how to make a film have authenticity. 

He ended up solving the problem by poking holes in the film to create a flash of white whenever a gun was fired.

One of the standout moments in the film for me is when Burt and Mitzi sit the children down to break the news of their divorce. 

The scene ends with a shot of Sammy pointing a camera at the mirror, supposedly having filmed his parents’ divorce in real-time. 

In an interview on the podcast, Smartless, Spielberg talks about the scene. He said the camera in the mirror was metaphorical, a tool he wished he had during his parents’ divorce to help him understand his complicated feelings. 

This shot expertly shows that filmmaking isn’t just a hobby for Sammy, it’s a necessity. He needs to create films to process his own emotions and to get into the head of others around him. 

A perfect example of this is when Sammy makes a film of his mother and Bennie being head-over-heels for each other on a family camping trip. 

Sammy keeps this film to himself for a while and it manifests inside him as resentment and anger towards his mother. He starts becoming increasingly short with her, at times refusing to talk to her and overall refusing to listen to her. 

When Mitzi has finally had enough of how Sammy is acting, she goes to confront him. This turns into a huge fight that ends with Mitzi slapping Sammy on the back. 

Mitzi then later comes to Sammy’s room begging for forgiveness and pleading with him to be open with her. Without a word, Sammy sets up his projector and leaves her to watch his film of her alone. 

I don’t believe that Sammy made this film to catch or embarrass his mother because he forgives her and promises to keep her secret. 

I think he made it to truly understand what was going on in Mitzi’s mind. How is it possible for your mom to be in love with anyone other than your dad? 

The second time the family moved was to California. This time Bennie is not brought along and Mitzi is slowly going crazy. She is much more aloof and impulsive, being driven away from her family because of her love for Bennie. 

Sammy is facing anti-Semitism at school, because not only is he the only new kid but he’s the only Jewish student. 

There is one boy in particular who starts to pick on him immediately. His bullying builds, and he harasses Sammy in the hallways and the locker room using slurs and intimidation. 

Sammy sees his chance to get back at this group of guys by telling the ringleader’s girlfriend that he has been cheating on her. This results in Sammy being beaten and forced to say he was lying. 

This brings new tension to the family. Sammy won’t tell his parents who beat him up or why, but he gets increasingly upset with his father for bringing them to a place where he is treated so horrendously, and gradually irritated by his mom’s constant mania. 

Sammy had stopped making movies in California. Mitzi was heartbroken because she loved seeing his movies, but Burt was proud because in his eyes Sammy had finally quit his hobby and was moving on to more adult things. 

This is until one day, Sammy brings his girlfriend home for dinner and she brings up how they need a photographer for a senior beach day. Mitzi insists that Sammy make a film for it and Burt protests, but after a heated argument, Sammy agrees to make the movie. 

This is how Sammy finds his passion for his craft again, and he knows he has to pursue filmmaking in the future because he has the overwhelming need to, no matter what his father says to him.

“The Fablemans” is one of the most truthful and honest movies I have ever seen. It is a slice of life tied together with beautiful cinematography and excerpt writing. The comedy and lightness of this film tied in with extremely serious moments make it feel so true. 

I will never get sick of seeing artists make art and this movie felt like reading a poem. You can feel the passion behind the film. Everything from the acting to the editing is perfectly in place, there is nothing about this movie that feels forced or unauthentic. 

Freeman can be reached at [email protected]