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The Fabelmans

Spielberg’s most personal film, is disappointingly distant

Spielberg is always amongst the names debated when discussing who is the greatest director of all time. Spielberg has made films ranging from the scary (Jaws (1975)), to the adventurous (Indiana Jones: Raiders of the Lost Arc (1981)), to the historical (Schindler’s List (1993)), and even the fantastical (Jurassic Park (1993)). However, the American director had never brought an introspection of himself, until now.

The Fabelmans (2022) is the story of the Fabelman family. We follow Sammy Fabelman as he grows up in 1950s in New Jersey (played by Mateo Zoryan) and later as a teenager (played by Gabriel LaBelle) as he moves to 1960s Phoenix and California with his family. His father is the rational engineer Burt (Paul Dano) and his mom is the whimsical housewife and repressed pianist Mizti (Michele Williams). Sammy discovers the magic of movies as a kid and uses his filmmaking prowess to understand the events of his life.

Spielberg has said in multiple interviews that The Fabelmans is as close to an autobiography as he’s ever going to get. He delves into a subject matter that he was loth to explore in his previous films, save for scenes in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) featuring a fracturing family. The Fabelmans likewise trains its eye on the seemingly happy titular family, and how fissures and time start to tug at its seams. The Fabelmansis Spielberg’s first time writing a screenplay since A.I. Aritificial Intelligence (2001), albeit this time with frequent collaborator Tony Kushner. Spielberg showcases once again the mastery of his visual craft, able to transfer a cornucopia of emotions with a five second silent sequence. The Fabelmans is strongest when it is focused on these layered visual translations.

Spielberg’s films have long played with the idea of broken families, and especially of absent fathers. However, with The Fabelmans the American director still is timid on tackling the gritty and complicated aspects of his childhood. The American director seems averse to digging into too much complexity or contradiction, with an infidelity as the only point of depth. This indecisiveness, between exploring the complicated relationship between his parents or his surrogate character makes both narratives feel watered down as a result. This results in the lack of an arc to hold Spielberg’s memory vignettes together. Paul Thomas Anderson was able to pull off a similar concept of childhood vignettes in Licorice Pizza (2021) and was successful thanks to the central romance that kept viewers glued. Spielberg fails to find a common magnetism in The Fabelmans; we instead get disparate memories that differ in strength, ranging from an intriguing camping trip to horribly clichéd high school tropes.

Spielberg fields a great cast of actors for his family members. We have the likes of Dano as the quiet and reserved father and Julia Butters as one Sammy’s sisters, delivering thankless, but crucial work. The real stars, however, are LaBelle and Williams. LaBelle is a discovery, bringing a naturalness to embodying a cinematic icon that can’t have been easy. Williams, meanwhile, shows us once again why she’s one of the most talented yet underappreciated actresses working today. One particular scene in which she’s watching a film is a tour de force, as the camera stays set on her, and she undergoes a subtle yet complete transformation.

The Fabelmans is a film in which some of the best artists in Hollywood deliver a well-made product. However, the greatest faults in The Fabelmans lie in the fact that Spielberg holds the story at arm’s length, too shy to want to explore the uglier aspects at hand, and instead relying on genre cliches. In many ways, viewers will be reminded of Bohemian Rhapsody (2018), which was also a well-made film that shows the important beats in the life of an iconic figure, but never explores the why or the grittier elements. The result is a Spielberg film that, while satisfying and impressive to behold, leaves you feeling emotionally cold.



About Young Critic

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I've been writing on different version of this website since February of 2013. I originally founded the website in a film-buff phase in high school, but it has since continued through college and into my adult life. Young Critic may be getting older, but the love and passion for film is forever young. 

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