This film was screened at the Toronto International Film Festival
Steven Spielberg is one of the greatest, most revered, and most beloved directors of all-time. His legacy and movies have touched most of our lives in some way, both large and small. This makes it even more of a pleasure to watch “The Fabelmans,” a semi-autobiographical film about his experiences growing up and his love for the filmmaking craft. It’s a project that feels deliberately crafted to cause a major manifestation of starry-eyed joy in both movie lovers and Oscar voters. I’ve never been so happy to be manipulated.
Sammy Fabelman (Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord, Gabriel LaBelle) has loved the movies since the first time his pianist mom Mitzi (Michelle Williams) and computer engineer dad Burt (Paul Dano) took him to a theater. Inspired by popular films at the time, young Sammy begins making his own, often using his friends and family as actors. While his mom always encouraged his artistic side, his dad only considered it a hobby, but Sammy never stopped creating. The film explores the boy’s life from child to teenager, including the rough adolescent years where he was bullied in high school for being Jewish, with one common thread: a kid’s love for and desire to make movies.
It’s wide in scope but intimate in story, especially as Spielberg explores the family dynamics that have continued to influence his work. The parental figures are at the heart, but it’s complicated when the Burt’s coworker Bennie (Seth Rogen) becomes so close to the family that he is basically considered a blood relative. The tension between everyday life in their household is told through a whirlwind of childhood memories and parenting imperfections, through missteps and mistakes and the highs and lows of being alive. It’s almost impossible to write a concise plot summary of this film, because it’s something you have to experience.
There’s an honesty to the storytelling as Spielberg recounts his formative years, especially in the creativity department. You may get chills when you see Sammy directing his first war movie, or when he shows his work publicly to rave reactions. The film is entertaining and endearing, but you may want to step back and ask yourself one thing: would this be interesting at all if it wasn’t about Spielberg? There are flaws that are easy to ignore, but a huge part of that is simply because it’s the story of one of the most famous film directors of all time.
LaBelle isn’t a highly charismatic actor, and it’s not easy to develop a strong emotional relationship with the character. Williams gets to cry a lot and flit about as Sammy’s nontraditional mother, but I often found her performance to be distracting. The real rock comes from Dano’s subtle turn as a father struggling emotionally while trying to provide for his family. Here’s hoping his non-flashy performance isn’t overlooked come awards season.
Spielberg obviously views his characters through a sentimental lens, but that’s expected when the story is built from memories of his own life. His free spirited mother’s imperfections sometimes look perfect, while his science-minded father is seen as being at odds with the artists in the family. I suppose that’s how he viewed his family as a boy, but it feels plodding and predictable.
Thankfully, he also captures the imagination, craftsmanship, and joy that comes from making your own art, and Spielberg’s talent of telling a story through a visual medium shines. The original score (by longtime collaborator John Williams) is a polished accompaniment to the film, and Janusz Kaminski‘s rich cinematography aids in creating a cohesive vision.
“The Fabelmans” is a coming-of-age drama that’s so much more than irresistible Oscar bait (although it’s absolutely, unequivocally that). It’s a project that’s made for and by people who love films on the purest level. If you make movies, write about movies, or simply love movies, this one’s for you.
By: Louisa Moore