If a filmmaker gets to make enough movies, eventually they might have to make a reflection on why they make movies. As a productive septuagenarian, Steven Spielberg is setting up his final act. Spielberg is making the personal movies he always wanted to make and used to make more often. Following his dream project of expressing West Side Story as a modern movie that plays like a better, older movie, Spielberg is now investigating why he dreams on-screen. It’s always a valid premise. As a matter of transparency with the audience, we would always like to see why the most prolific and revered directors make movies to begin with. It’s better than another computer-generated bubblegum pop movie. What happens when a director charts their past, however, is that we also get to deal with their family. Fair play. We may also want to experience Spielberg’s proxy for his childhood and the more emotional reasons why he would make movies. The Fabelmans is a sharply directed reflection of the artist as a young man, a strained love letter to cinema, and a weary family drama looking for connective tissue from a restless, disconnected ensemble.
How the filmmaker first contacts film is usually academic. They went and they saw a film. Their brains exploded with real possibilities and a unique conception point for how they can become the person behind the camera. While the masses around them just watched the movie and didn’t internalize anything they internalized everything and it became a part of them. It’s prescriptive storytelling that writes itself. Filmmakers can only speak truth to their own experiences and the experience of how they came to love film always goes about the same way. Sure, they saw different movies, went about experimenting in different ways, and each had widely varying support networks, but the stories are fundamentally the same.
The way it goes in The Fabelmans is that Steven Spielberg’s proxy Sammy Fabelman (the younger version played by Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord) goes and sees Cecil B. DeMile’s The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) with his family. The film’s highly inventive train crash sequence sets Sammy’s mind ablaze. It just keeps replaying in his head. His family notices and gets him a train set for Hanukkah and the only possible impulse is to replicate the crash, again and again. His father Burt, an aloof Paul Dano, only appreciates the technical matters of how things work. His big hobby is collecting disused television sets. He’s the kind of father who wants to take everything apart and put it back together but it’s unclear if he knows how to do the same with his family. Sammy’s mother, meanwhile, is full of artistic talent, a pianist who put away her art to have a family. Played by Michelle Williams, Mitzi is the big enabler of Sammy’s talents and dreams and decides they should film the trainset crashing so Sammy wouldn’t ruin it by repeatedly staging the action. Shooting something and then having a record of the experience is enough to really blend his parents’ technical and artistic proficiencies by channeling them into filmmaking.
That’s an easy and sweet setup for a film that will just be about the movies. But the movies are too interconnected with life for Spielberg to only make a tribute to the cinema. That’s not what The Fabelmans is really about, not most of the time. The love for movies, in fact, is both the apparent opening thesis and from there, a periphery detail of how Sammy would use his camera to detail the fragmenting relationship of his parents and how family units can deteriorate over time. It’s not the same movie as how it all starts but it is a valid idea that the filmmaker’s life story ought to be bookended by his two grandest cinematic revelations. Please note that spoiling the final revelation would be incredibly rude but is the one moment where it really all comes together and points to something more special than what the movie was supposedly meant to be about.
It diverts in several directions because it has to. That’s the story of what was happening around the real story that Spielberg wants to be telling. To do that, he must do some painful digging into his past. What doesn’t quite work here is the chemistry of his family. Michelle Williams never quite connects in her role and doesn’t make much sense playing off of Paul Dano. It’s all just kind of frustrating. Less believably, Seth Rogen is cast as Uncle Benny, who is always around and is going to become a bit of a homewrecker. There’s nothing to believe in about their characters. Perhaps because Spielberg utilizes the distant framing of this stand-in family to stand for something incredibly specific in his life, it just doesn’t read as fundamentally true. Sammy films the family during a camping trip and while editing the material, finds that his mom may have a clandestine romance shaping up in the background of happy family memories. Cue Seth Rogen’s laugh.
The film then takes an even harder jump into Sammy’s High School experience. Again, it just doesn’t quite work. High School Sammy is played by Gabriel LaBelle, who in a rare exception of this multi-age-casting format, never matches the magic of young Sammy and young Francis-DeFord’s eyes which always seem to be extracting cinema from any vantage Speilberg films them from. It’s a credit to the young actor but shows an unevenness in the collected ensemble. What the film does land, continuously, is a sense of humor, and a broad appreciation for how we contact cinema. When Sammy is directing, it is believable, well-realized, and filled with the magic that Spielberg is trying to evoke about these early experiences. When Sammy is confronting his mother and just engages in laissez-faire dramas with the other kids at school, the film has no lift to it, feels totally flat, and fails to match the character dramas inherent in the other parts of the performances. The move from Arizona to California, where the family hopes to rescue itself from this affair, is handled unseriously. Sammy’s first relationship is ridiculous (but extremely funny). His mother buys a pet monkey. The film generally goes off the rails, losing the plot and direct correlation with the building context for why movies are so important. It falls into basic biopic tropes here and while Spielberg directs the hell out of everything better than other directors would dare in similar circumstances, even the distinctly gorgeous Jewish humor just doesn’t save the film from being too typical and too long.
There’s a lot to say about what does work in The Fabelmans. Spielberg knows where the horizon is. He shoots with a sentimental understanding of how the camera operated in each moment of his life. When the film is too sentimental and mawkishly nostalgic, it is just a fault of the screenplay written by Tony Kushner and Steven Spielberg who can certainly do much better. If the film is an act of therapy and means a lot to Spielberg that he has made it, then it must be a resounding personal success. For the audience, while it is a crowd-pleaser through and through, the film’s insistence that it must also always please the crowd is eventually grating and unconvincing. We are consistently convinced that Spielberg is a good director but rarely that he has a fascinating origin story. Because it does fall in line with the tropes of how these things are often presented, as life certainly presents the chronological opportunity for this sort of flimsy reflection, we just take it on Spielberg’s word that this is something he must have had to make. It’s just not something you have to watch. If The Fabelmans flags a late-career arc of renewed interest in recapturing the stories that Speilberg made his name on, it is fundamentally a good thing. It is also a great-looking movie. The horizon is always where it needs to be.