Synopsis: Growing up in post-World War II era Arizona, from age seven to eighteen, young Sammy Fabelman aspires to become a film director as he reaches adolescence. But he soon discovers a shattering secret about his dysfunctional family and explores how the power of films can help him see the truth.
Stars: Gabriel LaBelle, Michelle Williams, Paul Dano, Seth Rogen, Judd Hirsch, Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord, Jeannie Berlin, Robin Bartlett, Julia Butters, Sam Rechner, Oakes Fegley, Chloe East
Director: Steven Spielberg
Running Length: 151 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review: Let’s get this straight. To me, Steven Spielberg is the most outstanding director of all time. Stop right there. I don’t want you to get out your well-worn movie journals or pull up your bookmarked film history pages that point to other celebrated directors whose films helped shape cinema as we know it today. For this guy right here (I stopped typing and pointed to myself), Spielberg is just the #1; thank you, and goodnight. It’s not just the JAWS of it all (the best movie ever made, you’re welcome), but his career has taken him through many different genres and styles. His constant need to innovate and create has kept him at the forefront of film and made him a game-changer. We flock to see his movies in the theater because he makes them for that theatrical experience. He made the best film of last year, West Side Story, fulfilling his long-held desire to make a musical, and some argue it surpassed the Oscar-winning original.
It’s a shame West Side Story didn’t repeat that acclaim at the box office and with awards, but it was, to me, a culmination of his work up until that point. The cinematography, score, screenwriting, technical elements, and directing all came together into one cohesive unit to create that modern masterpiece. What could follow that? The answer is arriving in theaters in time for Thanksgiving, and it’s The Fabelmans, a sometimes loosely autobiographical and often strikingly accurate portrayal of Spielberg’s life growing up and his family’s influence, specifically his mother. There’s already a lot of churn that the film will earn Spielberg his third Best Director Oscar (his last was 1999’s Saving Private Ryan) and that it’s currently the one to beat for Best Picture. But…is it?
You’re talking to a hardcore Spielberg fan here. Someone that will fondly bring up 1989’s Always in the same conversation as 2002’s Minority Report and who thinks 1991’s Hook continues to be overlooked all these years later. So, take it from this fan when I tell you that as moving and laudable as The Fabelmans is, there’s something oddly formal about it that also kept me about ten paces away from it. Part of that emotional lengthening is wrapped up in the very plot of the film. Still, it goes beyond that to a more significant issue with the screenplay (co-written with Pulitzer Prize winner Tony Kushner) and its structure which is episodic as the years go by yet strangely frozen in time.
Spielberg opens his movie with young Sammy Fabelman (Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord) having to be talked into a theater playing 1952’s The Greatest Show on Earth by his beleaguered parents. He’s at an age where theatrical movies are still intangible, he fears the big images about to tower before him. After, on the drive home, the wide-eyed boy has been changed for the better and sets out to recreate the film’s famous train crash with his Hanukkah gifts of toy train cars that form a large locomotive. That’s not enough; mother Mitzi (Michelle Williams, Venom: Let There Be Carnage) recognizes that. So, she borrows her husband Burt’s camera and lets Sammy film the crash so he can watch it repeatedly. And a filmmaker was born.
As Sammy grows up (eventually played for most of the film by Gabriel LaBelle, The Predator), he and his camera witness a tidal wave of change in the people and places around him. Family dynamics that went over his head as a child can now be replayed and reexamined frame by frame, driving a wedge between Sammy and his parents as a pair and individually. He trusts his mother to care for them but can’t reconcile a betrayal that goes unspoken, and he laments that his father (Paul Dano, The Batman) has blinders on for more than just what his children take an interest in. Joining a new suburban high school only intensifies his feeling of being an outsider, made more apparent when he’s targeted by bigots and begins dating an ultra-Christian girl that can’t keep her hands off him.
There’s a lot of movie to go around in The Fabelmans, so you can understand how audiences feel like they’ve walked away richly rewarded with various dynamic scenes and performances. And Spielberg’s eye for detail and knowledge of technique put the film on a completely different plane of existence. It’s beautiful to look at, and the production design should win the Oscar now and be done with it. Newcomer LaBelle is a true discovery as Sammy, taking us through complex emotional arcs without much set-up from Kushner or Spielberg’s script. No one is incredibly well served by some of the dialogue, which never sounds like anyone other than a Pulitzer Prize winner wrote it. There’s one scene between Sammy and his younger sister Reggie (Julia Butters, Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood) that sounds like a conversation between two Central Park intellectuals on their way to a be-in. While it works better for Judd Hirsch’s (Ordinary People) hysterical cameo and some of Dano’s excellent work, Kusher’s phrasing doesn’t sound right coming out of teens/youngsters, and they occupy much of the latter half of the film.
The end of the finale credits for West Side Story had a simple message, “For Dad,” and it does not surprise The Fabelmans ends with a similar message to Spielberg’s mother. Williams is playing the cinematic realization of Spielberg’s mother, so a gentle touch is granted the character, even when confronted with behavior that may get a more dramatic hand if the story hadn’t been so personal. The extent of Mitzi’s close friendship with Burt’s co-worker Bennie (Seth Rogen, Sausage Party) is hinted at, but Spielberg stops short of clarifying or speculating too much. In many ways, that’s admirable. A son wants to honor his mother by telling her story but doesn’t want to create trouble in the telling. Williams is on board with this and gives Mitzi that inner glow that radiates into her castmates. It’s not the slam-dunk award-winning role I was hoping for, so her competition need not worry, but it’s yet another sign Williams will be one of our lasting talents.
I’ve sat with the film for a few weeks now and hoped I’d want to see it again immediately, but it hasn’t hit me yet. There’s not a Spielberg film out there I wouldn’t watch again (actually, sorry, Bridge of Spies is a pass), and I’m sure I’ll meet up with The Fabelmans again, and I hope next time I’ll come away feeling closer to them than I did the first time. For now, you go on ahead and see if you get along with them better than I did.