Steven Spielberg is directing.
Starring Gabriel LaBelle, Michelle Williams, Paul Dano, Seth Rogen, Judd Hirsch, Julia Butters, Jeannie Berlin, Robin Bartlett, Keeley Karsten, Sophia Kopera, Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord, Birdie Borria, Alina Brace, Samrechner, Oakes Fegley, Chloe East, Isabelle Kusman, Chandler Lovelle, Gustavo Escobar, Nicolas Cantu, Cooper Dodson, Gabriel Bateman, Stephen Matthew Smith, Lane Factor, James Urbaniak, Alex Quijano, Kalama Epstein, Connor Trinneer, Greg Grunberg, David Lynch and Jan Hoag.
Growing up in post-war Arizona, young Sammy Fabelman aspires to be a filmmaker when he hits puberty, but soon discovers a harrowing family secret and explores how the power of film can help him discover the truth.
Inside Steven Spielberg’s skillfully crafted but structurally chaotic and tonally inconsistent autobiography The Fabelmans (co-written with Tony Kushner), Sam Fabelmans (the teenage Steven Spielberg deputy, played by a convincing Gabriel LaBelle), seemingly manic-depressive mother Mitzi Fabelman (Michelle Williams, who gives it her all in a film confused what to do with doing to her) eases a moment of family dysfunction by standing on a table and enthusiastically announcing that she’s started therapy. The scene is acted out for humor and admittedly works, but it also serves as a breaking point that the film will never go into detail and discuss her sanity aside from the tremendous performance that feels at times authentic and at other times grim.
Technically, this is a film about Sam Fabelman (or Steven Spielberg, depending on how you look at it). It could be The Fabelmans is guided from the perspective of Steven Spielberg’s truth, knowledge and memory of these events, filtered through his childhood thoughts and feelings. After all, The Fabelmans is a film about how films and storytelling give directors control over narrative and character. That still doesn’t relieve Mitzi of being an overly flashy character, though, while father Burt Fabelman (Paul Dano) is much more fleshed out with informed dialogue.
There’s a moment when Sam decides he needs to finally show his mom a home movie that will forever change their relationship from something relatively sweet and inspirational (she’s the one who introduced his young self, played by Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord , who was the first to give away a camera , and the urge to make films, parallel to her artistic passion as a pianist before she became a housewife) too cold and distant.
It’s one of the few low-key plays granted to Michelle Williams, elevating the sequence from emotional to devastating (also accented by excellent John Williams score). This isn’t just a scene that changes the dynamic between mother and son, but proof that there are hidden layers in the footage captured that can uncover new interpretations. The power of moving images is showcased to the full, with Michelle Williams responding brilliantly and being touched by what Sam’s soul is ripped from the game.
When The Fabelmans focuses on storytelling as a real-world tool and how it affects real people (another satisfying segment involves the portrayal of a high school bully and how the screen can use selected footage to convince viewers what to think about that person) , it’s original and it feels like Steven Spielberg is demonstrating that for him, filmmaking has typically always been a way to explore family history regardless of genre, and that the camera is the greatest weapon in any storyteller’s arsenal.
Meanwhile, the rest of the film is an episodic collection of critical moments in Sam’s teenage life, whether it’s multiple trips across America, Bennie, his father’s witty best friend (a winning twist from Seth Rogen, who infuses his humorous side with something dramatic), which supports his interests, a lesson from a stirring Judd Hirsch as Uncle Boris about the balance between art and family (and how mixing the two can be either destructive or emotionally healing), anti-Semitism from high school jocks, a death in the family, the construction of several home films (generally westerns and war films that are recreations of Steven Spielberg’s personal home films that clearly inspired future works), his first girlfriend (with seriously chilling religious humor, even if the film arrives at a fascinating analysis of the Jewish and Christian beliefs used for different purposes v used), David Lynch emerges as the legendary filmmaker, I won’t name here, who gets Sam his industry start (a rise roaringly absorbing performance with vibrancy and magic that other aspects of the narrative could have used) and a rift between him and his parents.
All of these diversions are consistently entertaining, but lack a narrative cohesion that prevents it from feeling like you’re perusing a Wikipedia page about Steven Spielberg’s teenage years. Not to mention, since there’s so much to touch upon, some of the more serious material is toned down and played safe. Aside from Sam’s work with cameras and adorable home videos (they’re becoming increasingly complex in terms of practical effects and sound design), much of The Fabelmans is standard drama that tackles too much to the extent that little of it resonates with effect. At least when the camera is not in play.
And while the juxtaposition of Sam’s love of filmmaking and his father’s dedication to computing at the expense of family stability is a high point, this diligence that doesn’t go into his mother’s character serves as a counterbalance to the quality of the film as a whole. Michelle Williams, who plays the role damn badly, just doesn’t save that, but fulfills some of it The Fabelmans with a sense of corny falsehood.
It’s a bit like Cecil B. DeMille’s train wreck The greatest show in the world this scares and excites young Sam into wanting a camera; Even from a master filmmaker who draws so deeply from personal memories, the spectacle is exciting and captivating, even if the whole thing is a head-on collision between competing subplots and characters.
Flickering Myth Rating – Movie: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the editor of Flickering Myth Reviews. Check here for new reviews, follow mine Twitter or letterboxd or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com