If anyone has earned the right to tell their own story and define how they will be remembered, it’s Steven Spielberg. Most artists are rarely given the chance and longevity to be able to look back on their life and reframe their own history and influences. Though Spielberg injects his extensive filmography with ghosts of his past, “The Fabelmans” is his first attempt at playing out those memories and influences in deeply personal detail. These kinds of films are often better suited for others to be the interpreter of events, lest the filmmaker be deemed too self indulgent to be effective. Here, it’s a risk worth taking, and though it falters with being a bit too up close and personal to be as sentimentally effective as it seeks to be, “The Fabelmans” proves the legendary filmmaker still has a lot left to say about himself and his work.
I’m at a true crossroads with this film, because on the one hand it truly is “Spielberg: The Movie” and falls just shy of actually becoming however self indulgent that sounds. But on the other hand, no one can really tell their own story quite like Spielberg himself. So while I would argue that most creators probably shouldn’t write, direct, and produce their own biopics, “The Fabelmans” makes a strong case for why only the man himself could possibly bring his own story to life. The film feels as personal as it is meant to, having a larger influence on interpreting the rest of his films than it does being influential on its own. Spielberg is laying out plain sight why he makes the movies he’s made and how his childhood and relationship with his parents are key figures in every facet of his creations. Even if the film itself doesn’t wow you, there’s a part of you that has to respect the vulnerability of the filmmaker. “The Fabelmans” is Speilberg laid bare, and feels very much like the final words he hopes to impart on a generation he has greatly influenced.
That’s not to say he’s retiring from filmmaking or that he’s dying tomorrow (at least I hope not), just that “The Fabelmans” is more than the sum of its parts, and requires you to tap into your emotional connection to the man himself despite the film being more of a real time interpretation of childhood memories. Long time collaborator and cinematographer Janusz Kamiński creates a sort of glossy, dream like hue around all of his subjects and frame, making “The Fabelmans” part memory, part dream, part reality, part slightly embellished biopic with a strong dash of “ya, this is probably how baby Spielberg felt about these things.” It is beautiful to look at, with Spielberg demonstrating once again he is technical wizard behind the camera. It is a man pouring both of his parents into a singular creation; the dreamer and free spirit of his mother and the pragmatic, pristine, regimented execution of his father. Despite spending nearly 40 years processing his childhood and familial relationships through film, “The Fabelmans” feels the most cathartic, finally coming to terms with it all and rather than hide behind dinosaurs or sharks or war or yes, even Peter Panning, He lays himself bare.
While it is in part about making movies, “The Fabelmans” is more of a family drama than a love letter to cinema. The film tells the story of Sammy Fabelman (played by Gabriel Labelle and serves as the Speilberg avatar) growing up in the 1950s and 60s. As a young child, his parents take him to see “The Greatest Show On Earth,” and though terrified at first of the train crash sequence, he discovers his love for recreating these events through film and begins pursuing his passion for movie making. His parents couldn’t be further apart in response. His mother MItzi (Michelle Williams) is a free spirit creative, a one time concert pianist who gave up her dreams to be a mother and lives life with her head in the clouds. His father Burt (Paul Dano) is a leading computer engineer, a model of old fashion American values; work hard, get a good job, follow the rules and you’ll be successful. As Sammy continues to view the world through the lens of his camera, he begins to see a whole new side of both his parents, and the crumbling of what he once knew with shape him forever.
As complex as “The Fabelmans” is from a big picture perspective, its relatively straightforward in its narrative execution. It is a tried and true coming of age family drama, one that sticks pretty close to how the majority of films in this genre often play out. It’s this kind of juxtaposition of impact that makes me wonder if this film is good enough on its own or requires it to be about Spielberg in order to be successful.
I don’t say that as a way of saying the film is bad; it isn’t. And I don’t even say that as a way of undercutting the terrific filmmaking aspects it has in spades. But it must be noted that were this not the culmination of one of the most accomplished, well known, and beloved filmmakers of our time, would it work as well as many feel that it does? I’m not so sure, which is again why it left me so conflicted. I don’t think I loved it as much as my colleagues, but I’m also not on the “let’s slander Spielberg for this” camp either.
I think I fall somewhere in the middle, recognizing the necessity and craft that went into this film while also recognizing many of its misgivings. Because of how personal the film is to the filmmaker, there are some things that get lost in the ambition of trying to deliver the whole package of what makes the man. “The Fabelmans” is most engaging when it focuses on the continued distance between Sammy’s parents and his relationship to them, as well as how film played such an important part in his life. Where it falters is wanting to capture every single influence Spielberg can think of, particularly when he gets to high school in California and it sharply turns from a family drama to an after school special about racism and bullying. Those things are clearly important to Spielberg, but I’m not entirely sure they’re AS important to the film overall. It is without a doubt an extremely sentimental film, and borders on being purposefully manipulative if not in your face emotional is some rather perfunctory ways.
I’ve heard a lot of critiques about both Dano and Williams being wildly miscast as Sammy’s parents, and while they aren’t necessarily home run performances, “The Fabelmans” is a fever dream of memories and a very personal story for its creator. And frankly, if any one of us were given the chance to make a movie about our lives and cast whoever we wanted, you can’t tell me you too wouldn’t cast two of the hottest actors in Hollywood to play your parents. You absolutely would, even if the story is about your estrangement and complicated relationship with them.
And for that part, both Dano and Williams do a terrific job playing opposites attract. Dano gets to pull back his weirdness and play it straight (which he does well) and Williams once again delivers a deeply emotional performance, constantly filled to brim with a whirlwind of emotion behind her big eyes. Williams is slightly offputting and a bit over the top at times, but its meant to demonstrate the differences between his parents and how much of both of them go into pretty much every one of his 35 films.
Labelle’s Sammy is delightful, with a star-making performance for the young, relatively unknown actor. Spielberg has always been one to discover young actors and get the most of out them, and he doesn’t short us on his own avatar selection. He’s really good, and I’m hoping to see more of him after this performance. And then there’s Judd Hirsch, who needs all of 8 minutes to barrel through and deliver one of the best performances of the entire film. I’ve always been a fan of him, but goddammit is he electric in the one scene he gets in “The Fabelmans.” He shows up as Sammy’s Uncle Boris, and essentially delivers the core theme of the entire film and what Spielberg/Sammy will experience and wrestle with for the rest of his life. It is both a fictional and true framing of everything this film means both to the audiences and to the filmmaker himself. And no one can really deliver all of it quite as well as Hirsch. I’m not on the Williams nomination train as I don’t think it’s necessarily an award winning performance. But if Hirsch somehow found his way into the stacked Best Supporting Actor category this year, I wouldn’t be mad about it at all.
“The Fabelmans” is a lot, and is certainly the kind of crowd pleaser that’s perfect for the whole family. Its got a ton of heart and purpose, and is expertly crafted across the board from the filmmaking to the performances. So why am I not instantly putting it in the top 10 best films of the year? It certainly makes the case for it, and I’m sure plenty of others will skyrocket it to the top of their lists come the end of December. I think because it doesn’t all quite come together as seamlessly as Spielberg intended, feels a bit too overly sentimental at times (which I can excuse mostly) and above all else, feels more important to the rest of his work than it does as a standalone. It makes me watch “Hook” or “Jurassic Park” with a different set of eyes, knowing more about why certain things happen in his films. It sheds light on my own relationship with my own parents as a child of divorce and a creative at heart. I can relate to two people who shouldn’t be together with opposing views of life trying to keep the family unit together by sacrificing their own happiness.
But it doesn’t do any of that if it isn’t made by and about Spielberg. Without 35 films to watch through “The Fabelmans” footnote, I just don’t think it’s as unique or impactful as it should be. You could argue that you couldn’t even make this film without him which is why it needs to be the way it is, that these things aren’t a detriment but an elevation of the biographical nature of its groundwork. And I want to love all of it, but I found myself slightly disappointed. It’s very good, and I would recommend it to just about everyone and have no resentment for it existing or pushing forward towards award season. I guess I just wanted it to wow me and make me want to hug my dad after leaving the theater.
“The Fabelmans” didn’t evoke the emotions I thought it would, so it becomes just another solid film that I enjoyed but probably won’t revisit in the future. And that’s unfortunate, but I was truly rooting for it, and I’m all for filmmaking catharsis. But the conflict the film evokes inside of me I simply can’t settle, which makes it a fine film that needs to exist but doesn’t quite reach the towering heights of a true magnum opus.
Maybe that isn’t what it was suppose to be and my own expectations are too high on it. And honestly, I’m not afraid to say that I could wrong here. But I’m not sold on the idea this isn’t striving to be those big themes at such great heights, and while it gets most of them right it falls a little short for me.
If we could all make movies as well as Spielberg, this is beautiful catharsis and a demonstration of how to retell your own stories in your own words. But none of us really have that ability and even less of us are going to be able to make “The Fabelmans” of our own lives.
So I guess its therapy, a stiff drink, and the craving of our parents approval for the rest of us.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 Stars
“The Fabelmans” is playing in select theaters now. You can watch the trailer below.