After six decades of dinosaurs, killer sharks, historical epics and futuristic dystopias, you can appreciate Steven Spielberg’s desire to make an introspective, familial tale. Yet The Fabelmans remains gleefully cinematic, delivering a viewing experience which is both intimate and sweeping in characteristic Speilbergian fashion.
The director has been wholly transparent about the autobiographical nature of the film, and Gabriel LaBelle is completely charming as his avatar, Sammy. The director playfully depicts Sammy’s growing confidence behind the camera, creating films which grow from schlocky monster movies to westerns and military epics.
The Fabelmans is at its most joyful when playing in these worlds and offering them a shimmering, cinematic sheen, yet the film is not wholly dipped in rose-tinted nostalgia. Sammy’s deteriorating familial life sees his parents Mitzi (Michelle Williams) and Burt (Paul Dano) grow increasingly apart, with Uncle Benny (Seth Rogen) never far away. As the family is moved across the country for Burt’s work, these fissures begin to broaden, and the young filmmaker is left to contemplate what the camera can truly uncover.
In these parental roles, Williams and Dano are given a difficult task, having to operate as totems of Sammy’s filmmaking personality (technical nous from Burt, and dreamlike cinematic wonder from Mitzi) and living, breathing characters in their own right. Arguably by design, Williams plays Mitzi akin to an ingénue from Hollywood’s past, prone to fits of despair and playful joy. As a result, it’s a tricky performance to fully relax into, particularly given the otherwise pedestrian nature of the family’s middle-class existence.
Dano is perhaps the pick of the two, but it is in the smaller moments that both excel – for instance, when watching Sammy’s films, the two characters so clearly express their deeper personalities; Burt incredulous at the technical composition of the shot, Mitzi enraptured in the thrill of the movies. As ever, so much can be read into the smaller aspects of Spielberg’s detailed blocking and characterisation.
What is perhaps surprising is quite how cynical The Fabelmans can be. Spielberg has long been critiqued (to my mind, unfairly) for his sentimentality, but his latest is far from mawkish. Yes, filmmaking and cinema are shown as breathtaking escapes, but they are also a crutch to deflect from and ignore harsh realities.
More so, it is through the lens of Sammy’s camera that their family begins to fracture. It is often wistfully claimed that filmmaking is a route to a mercurial, objective truth, and The Fabelmans takes this literally. Yet towards the film’s close, it also shows how cinema can ultimately distort reality. Villains can become heroes, and vice versa. As such, the film is not quite the paen to cinema that many may be expecting, and is all the more interesting for it.
The film’s stakes are never monumental, and it does suffer from a lack of narrative tension, but it is perfectly possible to watch The Fabelmans as a delicately rendered coming of age drama. There are larger than life cameos (Judd Hirsch’s superb Uncle Boris), giggling first-time loves (a playful Chloe East as Monica Sherwood), jocks, bullies, and an end-of-year dance. But there’s also the promise of something more; while so many coming-of-age dramas see the protagonists come to realise they need to work out their own path, we know where Sammy is heading, and so does he. He’s going to Hollywood, he’s going to be a filmmaker. Heck, he’s going to be Steven Spielberg himself.