Growing up in post-World War II era Arizona, young Sammy Fabelman aspires to become a filmmaker as he reaches adolescence, but soon discovers a shattering family secret and explores how the power of films can help him see the truth.
I’ve watched several movies lately where some of our best known directors have set out to make movies about their own childhood, revisiting the experiences that led them to fall in love with cinema in the first place. ‘The Fabelmans’, Steven Spielberg’s new movie, is the latest of this recent trend, as he goes back to his own childhood to tell the story of how he fell in love with movies and grew up to become arguably the greatest director of all time. Partly fictionalized – we are following Sammy Fabelman and not ‘Steven Spielberg’ here – this is a love letter to cinema and to the individuals who mattered most in Spielberg’s life. It is exactly the film I expected it to be, nothing more, nothing less, so take that as you will.
‘The Fabelmans’ is the story of Sammy Fabelman (Gabriel LaBelle), a young Jewish boy who develops a love for making amateur movies as his family are moved around the United States on account of his father’s job. He lives with his parents Burt (Paul Dano) and Mitzi (Michelle Williams), and his three sisters, with a lot of time also spent with a family friend (Seth Rogen) and various grandparents, aunts and uncles (Judd Hirsch and Jeannie Berlin the most prominent). He’s an introverted kid and seems to only get excited when he gets to play with his train set and his new camera, something which we see him develop from silent home movies to more advanced amateur films with special effects, made with his friends from scouts.
It should go without saying that one of the appeals of this movie is seeing glimpses of the influences that drove Spielberg’s career, from a cycling sequence with his scout buddies that echoes ‘E.T.’, to his love of sci-fi, western and war films that has driven much of his work. The best bits are the filmmaking sequences where a young Sammy learns a new trick, makes a new effect, and impresses his mum, dad and friends, and it saves perhaps the best scene for last when an older Sammy bumps into one of his heroes. Yet for all Spielberg’s passion, the rest of the film struggles to really come alive, from the trite high school drama that feels flown in from every mediocre high school movie ever made, to the family troubles that has been done, and done better, many times before.
The performances are pretty solid, with Paul Dano in particular really standing out and very unlucky not to get the Oscar nod over Judd Hirsch who is barely in it, but I really didn’t like Michelle Williams as Sammy’s mother. She’s not helped by the way the character is written, but I felt the usually excellent Williams was overacting to a fault here, and it prevented some of the movies key moments from landing as strongly as intended. ‘The Fabelmans’ is an enjoyable movie from Steven Spielberg that uses the power of nostalgia to tell his own origin story, but when stacked up against the many classics he’s made over his career, ‘The Fabelmans’ feels curiously inessential.
Directed By: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Gabriel LaBelle, Paul Dano, Michelle Williams, Judd Hirsch, Seth Rogen, Julia Butters, Jeannie Berlin, Keeley Karsten, Sophia Kopera, Robin Bartlett, Sam Rechner, Oakes Fegley and Chloe East
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