Spanning the early fifties to the mid sixties, we follow the exploits of Sammy Fabelman [LaBelle], as he discovers a passion for filmmaking and sets out to create his own mini masterpieces. More than that, it’s the story of the Fabelman family dynamic, specifically the polar juxtaposition between Sammy’s pragmatic father, Burt [Dano] and his dreamer mother, Mitzi [Williams].
The Fabelmans is easily the closest we’ll get to a Spielberg biopic – like someone strung together the various anecdotes the director has doled out over the years into one cohesive, but still fictional, narrative. It’s littered with references to Spielberg’s biggest influences, as well as illustrating nods to the events that would later inspire his biggest hits. And the whole experience feels charged with tiny lived details. Like the rhythmic clacking of the acrylics as Mitzi plays piano, the out of tune trumpet player at the prom, uncle Boris ripping his shirt and sleeping on the floor, and the entire encounter with John Ford. It’s an earnest love letter to filmmaking and cinema; which is all made possible thanks to the love and support of family.
Speaking of family, it can be an extremely difficult thing for a creative to turn the lens on themselves and those closest to them. Yet one of Spielberg’s greatest talents, has been the portrayal of family in a relatable rather than idyllic manner. Yet for all its accomplishments and bravery, it comes off as self indulgent and skirts greatness by simply alluding to drama without really honing in on it. One could argue that this is a reflection of reality. That, in life, there are no villains, just misunderstood individuals with passions and motives that do not align. But in this particular undertaking, everyone escapes unscathed. The lessons to be learned are straightforward and sidestep any specific accusatory finger pointing, judgment or (possibly most disappointingly) scrutiny. It’s as if these components are experienced but never excel to the lofty heights of unforgettable cinema.
The performances throughout are captivating, relying on that Spielbergian trait of realistic-feeling family interactions that are rooted in the chaos of the everyday. Dano and Williams are fantastic to watch. You sort of understand their relationship but as the film goes on, it’s clear these two individuals only share a semblance of a life together. Work, passions, pursuits, mental health – they don’t always align, and this leads to friction, despite best efforts. There’s also a host of magnificent supporting players but the majority are wheeled in and out with breakneck speed. Case in point, while this movie is so centrally about family, Sammy’s three siblings are never truly fleshed out. They simply turn up, utter a few quips and exit stage left. Barring one exception (that I bring up later), they don’t have the biggest impact on Sammy’s life and that feels like an oversight. Maybe not in Spielberg’s real life, but as this is a fictionalised retelling, there is room to elevate and improve individual’s direct involvement.
Unsurprisingly, this film is beautiful to watch. The cinematography and production design transport you to an entirely different time, while John Williams’ score serves a subtle, nuanced, and mature accompaniment. Plinking its way through the whimsical, melancholic and beautifully forlorn. All of which feels fitting in a film about being transfixed – transfixed by dreams, by ambition, by nature and by human flaws.
The film really flies when Sammy is on location making his films but then we’re dragged back down to the family drama. The idea of trying to illustrate that Sammy is truly alive while filming is great but it also means the film slows to a crawl when he’s not creating. This could have been entirely intentional: a representation of how an artist is simply compelled to create, but it leaves the movie feeling somewhat dry. Naturally, this will outrage and infuriate both Spielberg fans and film academics but the truth is, this movie is oddly paced. It feels like the film (if you’ll excuse the pun) ambles too much. And when we finally get our teeth into something, it either fizzles out or is undercut with a childlike whimsy. In other words, The Fabelmans is both the perfect project for Spielberg and yet he is its biggest obstacle for objectivity.
Don’t misunderstand, I’m not saying the movie is bad, far from it. It’s easily Spielberg’s most personal project but it only offers glimpses of the talent that made the director a household name. If anything, the entire film feels like it builds to that one final shot at the end – where the camera clumsily tilts to ensure the horizon isn’t smack in the middle of the frame. It’s a light fare that skirts darkness, while never truly exploring it. But the message it chooses to present, is a fascinating one. One which has clearly been a guiding principle for Spielberg from day one: no matter what happens in life – there’s always the craft.
27 January 2023
The Scene To Look Out For:
As stated, we see flashes of greatness in this film. Moments that stand out, with all elements working in harmony. One in particular is when Sam is editing the camping trip footage. In doing so, he discovers his mother’s closeness to family friend, Bennie (played by Seth Rogen). The camera spins around him repeatedly as he works through footage, frame by frame, with the editing screen revealing his mother’s true feelings, captured on celluloid. All while Mitzi plays piano downstairs.
LaBelle is fantastic and compelling, with a slight sorrow to his portrayal. And it’s clear he’s studied Spielberg closely, as there are moments when he gives off a wry smile, where you can see the young director shine through. But I’d also like to highlight Julia Butters. Butters plays one of the aforementioned underdeveloped supporting roles; that of Sam’s sister Regina. Butters replicates exactly what she did in Once Upon A Time In Hollywood and stands out, proving herself wise beyond her years and a captivating talent.
“Believe me Sammy boy, I get it. Family. Art. It’ll tear you in two.”
In A Few Words:
“Far from the heights of Cinema Paradiso, or even Spielberg’s greatest works, but neatly avoids being an over sentimental outpouring.”
Total Score: 3/5