When it comes to Hollywood’s efforts to depict Scouting on screen, you never know what you’re going to get. More often than not, Scouts in movies are shown as mostly friendly and likeable, but also the butt of jokes about their dedication to things like safety, the outdoors and the earning of merit badges.
(See Moonrise Kingdom and Pixar’s Up, both tremendous movies that poke friendly fun at some of the ideals of Scouting.)
You’ll find no such attitude, however in The Fabelmans, the semi-autobiographical drama written and directed by Steven Spielberg, the legendary director and Eagle Scout who in real life discovered his love of filmmaking while working on the Photography merit badge.
As we learned from the trailer, the film tells the story of Spielberg’s life from ages 7-18 and very much covers how his time in Scouting shaped the filmmaker he would eventually become.
I’ll get into some very minor spoiler-ish details below (Spielberg’s Scouting journey is entirely contained in the film’s first half, so I won’t be revealing any major plot points), but otherwise, here’s what you need to know: The Fabelmans is a very good movie.
You won’t find any action scenes (other than the ones Spielberg films in the movies within the movie) or over-the-top villains. But if you enjoy coming-of-age stories that move at a slow pace with a main character that’s easy to root for, then The Fabelmans is for you.
It’s rated PG-13, but there’s nothing too scary for younger viewers. Kids under 13 are more likely to be bored by the movie’s adult pacing than anything else, though the family does eventually deal with some intense, adult issues.
Read on for a more detailed look at how Scouting fits into the film.
How Scouting is depicted in ‘The Fabelmans’ (minor spoilers)
Of the movie’s 2-hour, 31-minute runtime, Scouting is featured prominently for around 30 minutes.
The movie begins with Spielberg, named Sammy Fabelman here, as a 7-year-old child going to see the first movie of his life. He’s both fascinated and horrified by the image of a literal train wreck, with what at the time would have been considered ground-breaking special effects.
A short time later, the Fabelman family moves to Phoenix, the action jumps ahead a few years, and we immediately see Sammy (now played by a slightly older actor) as a Scout. He and a handful of other Scouts ride their bikes, talk about girls and, of course, see a movie, all while wearing their Scout uniforms.
(Why they’re wearing their uniforms at this point is unclear, but it’s a minor quibble. The vintage clothing looks great, complete with neckerchiefs and what seems like accurate patch placement and everything.)
At one point, one of his fellow Scouts tells Sammy, “It’s called the Photography merit badge, not movies.” This is a nice little inside joke. In real life, Spielberg was able to convince his merit badge counselor to count his efforts to make a homemade movie toward one of the requirements for the Photography merit badge. Then, at the 1989 Jamboree, Spielberg helped introduce the BSA’s brand-new Cinematography merit badge, which would later become Moviemaking.
Sammy Fabelman got a lot of help from his fellow Scouts
The Fabelmans shows young Sammy making two movies with the help of his fellow Scouts. First, he films a Western-style shootout set in and around a stagecoach. Later, he films a World War II-themed action movie that he calls Escape to Nowhere that looks like it could have been a precursor to Saving Private Ryan.
What’s really great about this section of the movie is how Sammy’s Scout friends serve as actors, cameramen and assistant directors. They support Sammy every step of the way, with no complaints whatsoever. They are his friends. They are there to enthusiastically help however they can. Like true Scouts.
There’s a great moment when Sammy is directing the star of his movie to react more emotionally to the death of his squad mates. Both Sammy and his Scout friend get emotional in the process.
These Scouts are not the butt of any jokes. They are the true heart of these scenes.
When Sammy shows the movie to his troop, they hoot and cheer. They congratulate each other and slap high fives. They ooh and aah at Sammy’s use of fake blood to simulate gunshot wounds and camera flashes to simulate the gunshots themselves.
(This is also a true story. Spielberg has said in multiple interviews that the positive reaction he got from showing his early movies to his Scout friends is one of the things that inspired him to make more movies.)
After seeing one particularly exciting special effect in Sammy’s movie, a Scout asks Sammy, “How did you do that?” It’s the same real-life reaction moviegoers around the world had when they first saw special effects-laden Spielberg movies like Jurassic Park and Ready Player One.
In the car ride on the way home, Sammy gazes proudly at his Photography merit badge card and patch.
A few more notable Scout references
There’s a really good scene where Sammy’s sisters are prepping him for the Lifesaving merit badge. Sammy, with a beach towel around his neck, appears to be getting ready for his swim test.
Eventually, the Fabelman family moves to California, and it seems at this point that Sammy is no longer a Scout. Incidentally, this is also the point in the movie that Sammy encounters bullies and bigotry for the first time.
At one point, one of Sammy’s sisters, noting that Sammy is grouchy and stressed, says, “More like the misery merit badge.”
And later, during a rather intense conversation between Sammy and his mom, Sammy’s mom apologizes for a past act that she mistakenly thinks prevented him from earning the rank of Eagle. Sammy responds with something along the lines of, “No, Mom, I did get Eagle Scout.”
There’s one, last inside Scouting joke in the film’s final minutes, which involves a cameo from our second-favorite Eagle Scout movie director.
The Fabelmans has received almost universal praise from film critics. It’s out now in theaters everywhere.