A Steven Spielberg film, directed and co-written by him (with Tony Kushner, his regular collaborator over the past few years), and based on his life. The Fabelmans is, unsurprisingly, a film about falling in love with cinema, about how movies can reveal uncomfortable truths, and how people can be manipulated by the magic of movies. The surprising thing is that the film itself stops far short of greatness.
Gabriel LaBelle plays Sammy Fabelman (after Mateo Zoryan has depicted him as an even younger child), a young man who turns his passion for movies into a life-changing hobby that we all know will turn into a hugely successful career. His parents are played by Michelle Williams and Paul Dano, and there’s a friendly “uncle” (not actually related, just named as such as a term of endearment) played by Seth Rogen. There are other family members, but they’re background players, especially throughout a second half that shows Sammy being bullied by Logan Hall (Sam Rechner) and Chad Thomas (Oakes Fegley).
Very traditional in the way it all plays out, The Fabelmans is a nice film. Even the darker plot points (family issues, the antisemitism/bullying) are handled with great care, every main sequence more about appreciating the power of movies than it is about anything else. That’s to be expected, I guess, but it leaves you with a film that somehow feels less insightful than the excellent documentary on Spielberg from a few years ago. As Sammy immerses himself into movies and movie-making, viewers may find it far too easy to keep in mind that Spielberg is keeping himself well within his comfort zone. Even things that surely caused him pain in his life are made safer, more palatable, by his ability to put them in a movie, and that observation is spoken aloud within the film.
The cast all do a good job, with Dano and Williams real standouts. The former gives one of his typically restrained and controlled turns, in line with his good-hearted, but somewhat dull, character, and the latter gets to shine like the brightest star in the sky, her light casting a glow on the loving faces of the men in her life. LaBelle is a perfect stand-in for young Spielberg, Rechner is pretty good, and Fegley is a worryingly effective Chad, if you know what I mean. Chad’s gonna Chad. Chloe East and Isabelle Kusman have fun as two teenage girls who befriend our lead after a particularly rough encounter with his bullies, but their relative insignificance, compared to the affirmation he ends up getting from those who watch his films, feels as depressing as it is (probably) accurate.
The very end scene will leave many people smiling, but it’s the only moment that hints at how much better the whole thing could have been. It’s harder to join in with a celebration when some people are sobbing, and there’s only so much work that a John Williams score can do.
Slightly misjudged, slightly self-indulgent, slightly too . . . well, slight, The Fabelmans is still a good film, and Spielberg absolutely deserves to treat himself with this cinematic retelling of his youth, but it’s kind of like knowing how a magic trick works. You can still appreciate the skill, but you’ll never be as impressed and entertained as you were before you knew the mechanics of it.
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