Let’s talk about The Fabelmans.
If you’re a film buff and someone tells you that Steven Spielberg is the best director of all time, you probably do one of those superior snorts. How dare they not mention someone like David Lynch or Akira Kurosawa? But let’s be honest, it’s technically the correct answer. No director has combined sheer quality, critical appeal and public love like Spielberg. He has also done it across many genres while appealing to many different audiences. He can make a blockbuster which is a rollocking good time, move on to a sweet family movie before doing a drama about the Holocaust. So while if you heard a director was doing a semi-autobiographical film, you’d call them an egomaniac, Spielberg has at least earned something so reflective.
Sammy Fabelman sees The Greatest Show on Earth as a child and becomes enamoured with making movies. He continues to develop a passion for the ‘hobby’ but it also ends up exposing that his family picture is not as rosy as it seems.
So what we have in this film is a version of the coming of age story. While it uses different actors so it can do a time jump, this is a story about Sammy Fabelman growing up and realising his love for cinema, as well as that dodgy family stuff. Sammy is the Steven Spielberg stand in by the way. This does mean we have some of the unfortunate coming of age stuff that I don’t really enjoy. We have some squabbles which while they come out of something, feel frustrating to get through. We also have some good old high school bullies, and not only are they pretty typical, but we get some anti-semitism chucked on top of that. What the film does well is that even when you’re frustrated with some of the stuff, it does come back and pay it off very well. So yes, I’m not happy to go through some standard high school bullying tropes. But in the end, they make it work so maybe it’s quite good?
There have been a lot of films over the years about a love of movies and the cinema. Heck, there have been two others that have been released into the cinemas this month with both Babylon and Empire of Light both coming out. So to try and portray that in a new way that’s interesting is a big challenge. Here, Spielberg is marking it out as a love of film making, which kind of puts this film in the same area as Son of Rambow. We get to see Sammy making a variety of films with a scout troop as a teenager and what’s fantastic is how the film finds the joy in it. What Gabriel LaBelle, who plays Sammy, does really well is play out that passion in a way it becomes infectious. When he tells his dad about how he did some flashes on the screen to make the gunshots look real, he really does look like the cat that’s got the milk. This film makes movie making out to be the greatest thing in the world, which is the whole point as Spielberg looks to use this film to explain why he does what he does.
Of course, there’s a lot of family drama here. Sammy is part of a Jewish family that seems to pack up and move every few years as his father, played by Paul Dano, continues to improve his career. The family is seen as a mixture of scientists, lead by his dad, and artists, which is lead by his mother. This leads to a crucial battle, because while Dano loves his son’s film making, he sees it as just a hobby that he’ll eventually move on from. His mother, who was once training to be a concert pianist, truly believes in it and would see it as a huge disappointment if he wasn’t able to pursue his dreams. Then there’s Benny, a friend who’s there. This is a family that seems pretty perfect on the outside but the drama of the movie comes from the cracks that show. It’s all about ambition and dreams. Some people get to pursue them, some obviously gave them up. Having a young man who is now trying to achieve his dream causes fractures, and it also turns out using a camera all the time means you end up putting the fractures on the big screen.
The Fabelmans is a lovely drama where Steven Spielberg explains why he loves making films and continues to do so despite the fact he could have retired years ago. There are some problems which stop it joining the best of his work. There are frustrating moments where it falls on clichés and while it makes them work in a really interesting way which reflects the power a film maker has, you still have to sit through some clichéd scenes which can be tough in a two and a half hour movie. It is a really enjoyable movie so while it’s a B-Tier Spielberg movie, his B-Tier is better than many director’s best.