STeven Spielberg’s unusually personal drama The Fabelmans is a series of character-defining memories, a rare glimpse into the world’s most celebrated director that has usually kept us at bay. While his more than 30 films have mostly exchanged IMAX-sized warmth and great emotion, there has been an otherness, synthetic successfully (he’s a filmmaker who rarely misses) but only allowing us a vague sense of who he is as a professional rather than a person.
His formative years are cast in something semi-fictional here – it’s the Fabelmans, not the Spielbergs – but the vague details are much the same, the story of a boy discovering his love for film as his family is breaking up around him. We start with his first film experience, as Sammy, terrified by The Greatest Show on Earth, then haunted by what he saw. Determined to recreate the train crash that filled his nightmares, to control and understand his fear, he embarks on a journey of home movies, both encouraged by his parents while reminding him that a hobby never should occupy only part of his time. As he grows up, we spend the majority of the film with himself as a teenager, played by an excellent Gabriel LaBelle, as he struggles with his passion while struggling with the slow decay of his parents’ marriage. , played by Paul Dano and Michelle Williams.
Post-Roma, we’ve seen a glut of great authors go small to bring to life something of their own previously unexplored past, distinguishing between vulnerable inquiry and conceited indulgence. Despite its often unfairly simplified association with full-throated sentimentality, Spielberg’s attempt is actually relatively restrained and grounded in reality, eschewing the obvious cutesy that could so easily accompany territory. The script, from Spielberg and Tony Kushner, moves past easy potholes and takes us somewhere less expected, focusing on smaller, not-as-easily-explained emotions rather than the swell of the big one. There remains a takedown but again, Spielberg giving us a slightly too scenic version of himself and his family, a few nerves missing in the darker moments.
As his inventive young self learns to push the audience buttons within the tight budget he’s lumped in with (there’s real joy in the scenes where he finds clever ways to make his humble films massive, even if lack of courage and struggle makes him seem like a genius from the start), at home his parents are in dire straits. His father’s professional rise takes them from state to state, adding tension to their friendship with “Uncle” Benny, played by Seth Rogen, who Sammy begins to realize is more than just a friend for his mother.
While Spielberg avoids the easy, soapy conflict such a situation could bring (there’s hardly any moment the characters raise their voices), he also avoids showing us the bigger, messier picture. The trauma of depression, bullying, anti-Semitism, divorce and infidelity never seems so traumatic here, made to look like they’re all part of one nice, clean postcard by director of photography Janusz Kaminski. It’s unusual to see Spielberg working with a light script on a strict structure, his film jumping from moment to moment rather than something more closed and conventional and although it gives the film a real sense of remembrance – we remember rarely any in-between bits – it also makes the drama feel a little underpowered, its younger self fully realized while its parents miss a bit more detail. There’s already talk of finally being Williams’ Oscar to lose (she’s already been nominated four times) and it’s certainly a performance for the best, quirky and specific, propelled by an endlessly bizarre energy that we don’t know about. isn’t used to seeing in suburban moms of the 50s and 60s (in one telling scene, she’s heading towards a tornado rather than away). I don’t know if that always worked for me, sometimes it was a little too affected and contrived, but it’s definitely hard to take your eyes off her. Dano, whose look and vibe has usually been used for Goosebumps, is successfully softer here, but it’s a brief appearance by Judd Hirsch as a weird and distant uncle that might be the real game. from awards here, rolling in the house for a memorable night to giving Sammy an unforgettable speech on how to navigate the need to create art. It brings a benefit that I wanted more of.
At 150 minutes, the most forgiving thing about Spielberg’s nostalgic revisit is the runtime, too long a trip down memory lane that could have been done with a few cutouts. But it’s a sweet, sometimes incredibly endearing journey home.