In the mail-Roma As they age, it seems inevitable that respectable directors will eventually turn all their cameras on themselves, with results ranging from the moving to the pedantic to the pretentious. The newest (and most anticipated for at least a certain subset of movie fans) of these is Steven Spielberg’s The Fabelmans, a semi-autobiographical exploration of Spielberg’s formative years as a film buff and aspiring director. The result is mainstream cinema at its finest, with some sequences that will surely go down in film history for decades to come.
When we first meet Sammy Fabelman (Mateo Zoryon), he’s watching his first movie with his parents: Cecil B. DeMille The greatest show in the world. It will be the happiest moment he, his brilliant workaholic father Burt (Paul Dano) and artistic mother Mitzi (Michelle Williams) will ever share.
Instantly obsessed with cinema, Sammy begins making home videos with his sisters in order to banish any demons clogging his head and erect a barrier between him and the harsh realities of the world.
Sammy’s journey from young enthusiast to gifted amateur to struggling college dreamer parallels his middle-class Jewish family’s migration from New Jersey to Phoenix and eventually Los Angeles as Burt’s career develops. Each location plays a critical role not only in the growth of Sammy’s talent, but also in the deepening rift between him and the rest of his family.
Sammy’s parents deal with growing tensions in their marriage and a complicated relationship with family friend Bennie (Seth Rogen), leading to further family rifts.
The Fabelmans rises as Spielberg focuses on Sammy’s burgeoning relationship with the film itself. His mother and father each represent figures in the arts and commerce who take turns inspiring him and trying to keep him grounded. As Sammy grows older, he finds himself torn between his parents and his teenage years (played by Gabriel LaBelle) are spent distancing himself from both of them.
Over the past decade, Spielberg has worked regularly with playwright Tony Kushner (who also writes the screenplay here) to great acclaim, ranging from historical backroom politics (Lincoln) to the revival of a beloved Broadway classic (Westside Story). This time the theatrical flair doesn’t go so well with a mainly episodic drama, leading to unexpected consequences for the actors leading the dialogue.
Dano and Williams are fantastic talents, but watching them suddenly switch back and forth between theatrics and subtlety brings a bit of whiplash. Of the two, Williams is asked to shoulder the heavier burden as she comes across as a woman constantly in the process of a nervous breakdown – a development never satisfactorily studied or explored but a bizarre dance, much crying and, at A point, an ill-advised pet monkey.
The dramatic extremes of The Fabelmans also perform at its best.
Rogen is impressively reserved as Bennie, whose constant presence and charm proves to be a formidable force in the lives of the Fabelman parents and, by extension, their children. He’s second only to Judd Hirsch and David Lynch, who only appear in one scene each, but those scenes are two of the film’s most memorable.
Other parts of The Fabelmans suffer from a lack of nuance. The film’s second half, which delves into the dissolution of Mitzi and Burt’s marriage, and Sammy’s experiences of anti-Semitism at his Northern California high school are treated with the mindless zeal of an after-school special. Sammy is also physically smaller than many of his classmates, making him easy prey for bullies. Spielberg emphasizes this by packing the frame with actors who are clearly grown adults playing high school students, which feels more than a little odd.
Thankfully, for all his tonal vagaries, Spielberg’s name is still on the marquee, and that counts for a lot. Even Spielberg’s smaller works still have moments that rank among their year’s best, and The Fabelmans is no different.
For every silly, flat-footed beat, there’s a counter with a transcendent sequence that delivers that sense of escapism that only the movies can bring.