The semi-autobiographical film from Steven Spielberg falls flat, at a disservice to the legendary filmmaker.
The Fabelmans tells the story of Sammy Fabelman, a young aspiring filmmaker, as he tries to balance his budding film career with a complicated home life. The film is co-written and directed by Steven Spielberg, and is a semi-autobiographical take on his early life. The film stars Gabriel LaBelle as Sammy, Michelle Williams as Sammy’s mother, Mitzi, and Paul Dano as Sammy’s father, Burt.
To say that Steven Spielberg is one of the most formative and culturally impactful film directors of the last century is an understatement. The man can boast a total of 301 award nominations between Academy Awards, BAFTAs, Emmys, and Golden Globes alone, and 152 wins, including 3 Academy Awards. Seven of his films have been inducted in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress. Some of his most notable films such as Jaws, Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Jurassic Park, and Schindler’s List have become cultural milestones.
Spielberg has proven time and time again, even in his lesser hits, that he is a master at directing tension. He can craft a world so colossal, but sell it to an audience in a way that makes it look easy. He can blend action and drama so seamlessly, in a way few other directors are able to pull off. Which begs the question: why is it easier for him to sell an audience a world in which dinosaurs exist again, or a story about an alien befriending a little boy than it is for him to make us care about a story that mirrors his own life?
Ultimately, Spielberg is doing himself a disservice with The Fabelmans. There is not much story to be had in this film. A young boy is entranced by the first movie he ever saw in a theater, which inspires him to make home movies, and he eventually grows up to be a filmmaker. Sure, there’s elements of a complicated family life: a mother battling with mental health struggles and extramarital affairs. But, we’re never given a reason to care. It’s evident from the first five minutes of the film that Sammy loves films. Throughout the film, Burt refers to Sammy’s film making as “a hobby,” and Sammy continually pushes back that this is his life’s greatest passion. But we’re never really given a reason to root for Sammy. He pretty much just coasts through the film, shrugging off each struggle that comes his way, until he just “makes it” in the end. There’s no real moment of epiphany or satisfaction. We just watch Sammy love films for two and a half hours.
Which, if you’re a Spielberg fan, is incredibly disappointing. The same man who directed Jaws as his third major motion picture, who masterfully directed the Velociraptor kitchen scene that still causes heart palpitations no matter how many times you watch it, is now spoon-feeding you a plot that is so simple, there’s not even a need to be spoon fed. While Spielberg’s career is certainly one that had huge potential for a film’s source material (again, Jaws was the man’s third directorial credit!), this one comes across as self-indulgent and unnecessary.
Furthermore, most of the performances in this film fall flat. While Gabriel LaBelle carries the film well, Paul Dano feels out of place in this film, and Michelle Williams veers into overacting. Though, it does seem unfair to Dano to place him in the Supporting Actor, as his character is as integral as Williams, and he is given about an equal amount of screen time despite her being campaigned in the Lead Actress category.
However, if there are any bright points to this film, they lie in the technical aspects. The cinematography is as gorgeous as one could expect out of Spielberg film, and the period-appropriate costumes and stylings pop onscreen beautifully. The score is also a standout, although longtime Spielberg collaborator John Williams rarely disappoints.
Ultimately, The Fabelmans is a disappointment to even this die-hard Spielberg fan. While the film’s technical aspects make it visually pleasing to watch, the self-indulgent and blasé story line and generally flat performances make it a disservice to the very man by whom it’s directed.
Likely: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, Best Actress (Michelle Williams), Best Supporting Actor (Paul Dano or Judd Hirsh), Best Original Score, Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, Best Costume Design
Should be Considered: None
Where to Watch: In Theaters
Lives in NC, where she is on a first name basis with the owners of her favorite pho spot.
Favorite Actress: Angela Bassett