Gabriel LaBelle as Sammy pointing a movie camera at the viewer in 'The Fabelmans'

‘The Fabelmans’ Review: Impersistence of Vision

Spielberg’s autobiographical coming-of-age film soars and stumbles

Perhaps no director has more of a monopoly on childhood than Steven Spielberg, whose family-focused output in the 80s and early 90s is wallpapered on the interior of every Millennial brain. Now the director of our childhoods has turned the lens around towards his own, and it’s no surprise he decorates the signposts of his adolescence with a deep love of filmmaking. There is evidence of a director at war with himself in The Fabelmans, torn between the desire to escape into the fantasies his characters create on film and the unpleasant work of parsing the uglier business of real life. The former wins out over the latter in a film that often soars, occasionally stumbles, but is consistently charming throughout.

The irony of this love-letter to cinema is that the first time we meet our protagonist Sammy (played as a child by Mateo Zoryan and Gabriel LaBelle as a teen) while waiting in line to see his first movie — he’s terrified. It’s dark and there are giant people, he’s been told, what’s so great about that? His parents try to reassure him: his father, Burt (Paul Dano), a pioneering computer scientist, eases his fears by explaining the science of cinema; the way the brain interprets 24 frames per second through persistence of vision. His mother, Mitzi (Michelle Williams), a free-spirited former concert pianist, tells him that movies are like dreams you never forget.

Little Sammy is, of course, entranced by the film he sees that day, but overwhelmed by its visceral depiction of a train crash. He becomes obsessed with recreating it using an 8mm camera and his toy train set. If he can control it in a film, his mother surmises, he can better cope with the reality of his fear. This sets in motion a pattern for Sammy, using filmmaking as a way to control the fictional narrative in a way he can’t control the realities of life. As the only Jewish kid among his peers, he can feel a sense of belonging by bringing his scout troop buddies together to shoot a Western. He can induce his square-jawed leading man to tears for a crucial scene, but he can’t prevent beatings from the anti-semitic captain of the volleyball team. When he accidentally captures a devastating secret on film during a family vacation, for a time he simply edits it out, stashing the incriminating footage away in favor of the fantasy of a happy home life.

Paul Dano carries the heavy burden of playing the father of cinema’s most father-obsessed filmmaker, and yet Burt is depicted with more humanity than fathers typically receive in Spielberg’s films. It would be easy in a story like this to demonize the logical, science-minded patriarch who views art as a frivolous hobby, but what Sammy’s artistic mother and scientific father both share is passion. Burt for the practical workings of the world and Mitzi for its intangibles, and the pair make the improbable relationship of opposites work — for a time.

Mitzi’s actions drive most of the film’s narrative to the point that she is almost a second protagonist. The artistic passion she’s bottled in to focus on being a mother manifests itself in bursts of mania, which of course the straight-laced men in her life — including Burt’s best friend Bennie (Seth Rogen) — find irresistible. Conversely, her bouts of depression send the family that so depends on her into a tailspin. Yet for all the attention the film gives to Mitzi, she is always seen in the soft-focus of memory, never coming into sharp relief as a real person. You feel Williams is playing a character, a quilt stitched together from a best-of reel running in Sammy’s (or Steven’s) head. Even the darker aspects of her personality feel larger-than-life, and so much as Spielberg makes her the soul of this film, he can’t detach his own emotions enough to let her be an authentic individual.

Dano and Williams are just two of the excellent performances in the film. LaBelle endears with his interpretation of teenage Sammy, evoking the perfect balance of nerdy enthusiasm and teenage angst. Also notable is a small but star-making comedic turn from Chloe East as Sammy’s high school girlfriend Monica, who doesn’t let her love for Jesus interfere with her rampant horniness. Most unforgettable of all is the David Lynch cameo that will dominate film nerd group chats for months to come.

As with most coming-of-age films there’s less of a cohesive narrative as there is a collection of scenes, and many of them are delightful, particularly the scenes of Sammy and his group of friends shooting their pictures and figuring out the nuts and bolts of “movie-magic” effects. A wooden board and some dirt become a landmine, while simple editing and strategically-dropped ice cream make up a hilarious bird poop gag. These are the moments where you see the importance of merging both the practical and the fantastical to make great cinema.

These small scenes infuse the film with an easy charm, but the narrative stumbles when attempting to tie any of it together into capital-T Themes. The back half of the story is weighed down by awkward, overly talk-y stretches where characters announce how they feel and monologue their way through whatever conflict is currently taking place. These are the times when the film feels most like an artificial construct, where you can almost see Spielberg and co-writer Tony Kushner behind the curtain attempting to explain the movie to you instead of letting it explain itself. The Fabelmans doesn’t rank among the highest of Spielberg’s works, but for a director with so many masterpieces under his belt, even his OK work is pretty darn good.

Rating

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

This review was made possible by donations to the Fall Movie Fundraiser for Indigenous Abortion Access. Missed your chance to donate? You still can!


Kristen Grote is a freelance film and culture critic. Follow her on Twitter and Letterboxd.