Directed by: Steven Spielberg
Premise: Set in post-war America, Sammy (Gabriel LaBelle) follows his passion for filmmaking while his parents’ marriage buckles under increasing stress.
What Works: Much has been made in the press about The Fabelmans as a semi-autobiographical work on Steven Spielberg’s part. He co-wrote the script which is based on his own upbringing. Knowing that certainly informs our understanding of the film but The Fabelmans also plays as a fiction and a self-contained story. Admirably, Spielberg does not treat this picture as a victory lap the way he did Ready Player One. There are no cute references to his filmography. Instead, The Fabelmans is the story of a Jewish family making their way in post-war America and the emphasis is on Sammy’s coming of age and the disintegration of his parent’s marriage. Sammy is a young man who discovers his passion for filmmaking and pursues it with ever increasing dedication. Filmmaking is a way to find truth but also a way to create an idealized reality; Sammy’s films reflect this. It is through film reels that Sammy realizes the problems in his family and The Fabelmans is partly about that transformative moment when we see our parents as fallible human people. That idea is tied directly to Sammy’s need to create movies and The Fabelmans is an impressively complex exploration of what it means to be a filmmaker and the space where life and art intersect. The film has a few notable performances, namely Gabriel LaBelle as Sammy and Michelle Williams and Paul Dano as his parents. LaBelle doesn’t do a Steven Spielberg imitation (what would that even look like?) but he creates a distinct character who is smart but not precocious. Williams and Dano play a believable couple and the breakup of their marriage is both obvious and heartbreaking. Also notable in a very small role is Judd Hirsch as Sammy’s distant uncle. He’s only in one sequence but he makes an impression that runs throughout the movie.
What Doesn’t: The Fabelmans suffers from being just a little too pat. The filmmakers spell out the idea that Sammy uses filmmaking to gain control over the frightening and stressful aspects of his life. The picture also acknowledges the boundaries of that control and The Fabelmans is as much about the love of cinema as it is about cinema’s limitations; it can reveal the problems in the parent’s marriage but it cannot fix them. For a movie about thorny parent-child relationships and a disintegrating marriage, The Fabelmans ends in a way that is too conciliatory. Virtually everybody gets what they want and the costs and sacrifices required to satisfy those desires are minimized. It undermines one of the film’s central ideas, that following artistic passion is going to require a degree of selfishness that inevitably breaks hearts.
Bottom Line: The Fabelmans is a satisfying coming of age story and a thoughtful drama about cinema and the way life and art intersect. It has the characteristic Spielbergian optimism, both for better and for worse, but that quality is tempered by a sense of wisdom behind the camera.
Episode: #931 (December 18, 2022)