The Fabelmans ★★★
Updated: Dec 10, 2022
Availability: In theaters now; streaming on December 13; see JustWatch here for future streaming availability.
“If you stop making movies, it'll break your mother's heart” - Bennie
Steven Spielberg’s latest effort to bring people back into theaters is an homage to filmmaking: his loosely autobiographical account of how he became fascinated by motion pictures. The opening scenes are of a 6-year-old fearful boy being taken by his parents to his first one, “The Greatest Show on Earth” (1952). His Dad exuberantly explains to him the fine details of how still shots turn into motion before our eyes; his Mom excitedly expresses the emotional thrills awaiting him. Those in a nutshell are the contributions of Dad/Burt (Paul Dano), and Mom/Mitzi (Michelle Williams), to little Sammy Fabelman: one is the technical side, the other the artistic. Defining the story is this tug-of-war between practicality (Dad keeps calling his son’s interest a “hobby” and says, “you need to make something people need”) and artistry: “Don’t tell your Dad,” says Mom, as Sammy records on celluloid a collision he has created with his electric train set, “It’ll be our secret movie—just yours and mine.”
At his first movie, Sammy (Gabriele LeBelle) experiences the tug-of-war
between practicality (his Dad, Paul Dano) and artistry (his Mom, Michelle Williams).
Spielberg’s biography is so well-known that it makes cinematic sense to displace the tension onto his talented, frustrated mother.
Though ostensibly about Sammy’s development as a director, it’s Mitzi’s thwarted concert piano career and love life that dominate this mother-son narrative, a family drama played out in locations from the East Coast to Phoenix to Northern California. Sammy’s, aka Spielberg’s, biography is so well-known that it makes cinematic sense to displace the tension onto his talented, frustrated mother. Or it’s possible that Williams’ role and performance overpower the production. A midnight dance in her lingerie, tornado-chasing with the kids in the car, serving dinner on paper plates and cutlery to protect her piano hands (“things taste funny with plastic forks,” says her mother-in-law), and other hi-jinks keep the lens focused on her. Williams lights up the screen with her passionate, risk-taking character.
Even as a teenager, Sammy (LaBelle playing Spielberg's alter-ego), is an accomplished film-maker, here in the desert near his California home.
The prolific director (he’s done almost 60) is anxious to tell us what a film can do—and what Spielberg can do with film. It can be dramatic and frightening (the 6-year-old’s experience with his first movie [we took our then 2-year-old to “Meet Me in Saint Louis,” with plenty of granola, and he ended up in the business]); it can evoke emotions (a teenage Spielberg directs a friend so expertly that the first-time amateur actor keeps walking into the desert long after the camera has stopped rolling); it can be used as a forensic tool, that is, to see what is really going on; and most importantly, as Spielberg demonstrates, it can reveal a person’s essence.
Antonioni’s “Blow Up” (1966) brought to home movies.
One element of the plot revolves around Mitzi and her attraction to Bennie (a restrained Seth Rogen), a family friend who all but lives with them. It’s an attraction Sammy discovers only when editing his reels; Antonioni’s “Blow Up” (1966) brought to home movies. The prescient Sammy captures a person’s personality in the way his camera records them; his mother, in one case, to the point that she’s overcome with emotion. In another instance, as he prepares a highlight reel for his high school’s class prom, he portrays the too-handsome class stud—and school bully and jerk (Logan Hall)—so well that the guy breaks down under the pressure of his Greek God screen image.
Left, Chloe East as Sammy's
(Gabriele LaBelle) very
Christian girlfriend, praying
before they make out
in her bedroom.
Co-written by Spielberg and Tony Kushner (who have collaborated on several scripts together, including the recent “West Side Story”), many scenes are overly determined or rely on caricature. The very Christian girlfriend (Chloe East), who makes Sammy pray with her before jumping on him on her bed, is very funny, and entirely unreal. David Lynch as John Ford in a late scene is delightful, but also corny. Judd Hirsch is the uber-crotchety old uncle who drops in for a visit to explain to Sammy that he must forego family and follow his creative instincts. “Art,” Uncle Boris insists, “is no game! Art is dangerous as a lion's mouth. It'll bite your head off.” Seeing these Hollywood names strut their stuff is entertaining, to be sure. And Gabriel LaBelle is a perfect Sammy Fabelman: a cross between a nerd and a soul with passion.
Mom Mitzi (Michelle Williams) may be holding Dad's (Paul Dano) hand,
but her eyes are all on family friend Bennie (Seth Rogen).
The writers also revisit Spielberg’s pursuit of antisemitism, which to him is both personal and global. It was an inchoate theme in “Poltergeist” (1982, Spielberg was one of the writers) and an obvious one in “Schindler’s List”(1993) and “Munich” (2005, also with Kushner). Unlike the treatment of the issue in these films, here the high school students’ antisemitism is another hit-you-over-the-head characterization.
Spielberg pulls out all the Hollywood stops to make his roman à clef appeal to those reluctant to return to theaters. The shots of audiences watching the big screen—enormous audiences, sitting close together—are both nostalgia for old times and wishful thinking. He and Kushner know how to tell a good story, and he knows how to shoot it. One could hope for a less formulaic and, yes, more creative effort. But that’s not what “The Fabelmans” (a not-too-subtle title) tries to be. It’s just good old-fashioned Hollywood; not less than that, but also not more.
Director: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Gabriel LaBelle, Michelle Williams, Paul Dano, Seth Rogen, Judd Hirsch, David Lynch, Chloe East, Logan Hall
Country: United States
Runtime: 151 minutes
Other Awards: 3 wins, including the Toronto International Film Festival’s People’s Choice Award for Best Film, and 3 other nominations to date.