Family Love and Movie Love Intertwine in Steven Spielberg’s Immersive ‘The Fabelmans’ | Movie+TV Reviews | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Family Love and Movie Love Intertwine in Steven Spielberg’s Immersive ‘The Fabelmans’


Published December 14, 2022 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated December 19, 2022 at 9:52 p.m.

Spielberg's autobiographical coming-of-age tale is complex enough to transcend its cornier elements. - COURTESY OF UNIVERSAL PICTURES
  • Courtesy Of Universal Pictures
  • Spielberg's autobiographical coming-of-age tale is complex enough to transcend its cornier elements.

Steven Spielberg's The Fabelmans scored five Golden Globe Awards nominations this week and is almost certain to be a contender at the Academy Awards. Yet box office receipts for the director's autobiographical passion project have been lackluster, and the film was just released on paid video on demand.

That's not a good sign for the theatrical future of "quiet" movies in general — and the abrupt streaming release is a cruel irony, considering that The Fabelmans pays tribute to the big-screen spectacles that shaped Spielberg's youth. While you can, I suggest you catch this immersive movie about movie love at Merrill's Roxy Cinemas in Burlington.

The deal

Young Sammy Fabelman (Mateo Zoryan) is obsessed with movies from the night in 1952 when his parents take him to see The Greatest Show on Earth. His dad (Paul Dano), a computer engineer, is happy to supply the boy with cameras and other equipment but cautions him to keep his filmmaking just a hobby. A pianist who put aside her own promising career to raise four kids, Sammy's mom, Mitzi (Michelle Williams), is more sympathetic.

As a teenager (Gabriel LaBelle), Sammy casts his whole Boy Scout troop in increasingly elaborate 8-millimeter spectacles. His beloved mother, meanwhile, becomes depressed and volatile. When Sammy learns something unexpected about Mitzi from one of his own home-movie reels, he has to face the flawed nature of the one person who's always believed in him.

Will you like it?

Some movies sweep you up immediately into their worlds; others grow on you. The first third of The Fabelmans came close to losing me because it was so stylized, with broad performances that didn't feel natural to the actors. The young Sammy is more cute than expressive, Dano could be pastiching "Father Knows Best," and Williams turns up the comic mania so high that she gave me unwelcome flashbacks to Nicole Kidman in last year's Being the Ricardos. These early scenes feel more like the 1950s remembered through a haze of nostalgia and pop culture clichés than anyone's real experience.

But perhaps that's the point. Spielberg is, after all, someone who unabashedly loves pop culture and defined mass entertainment for a generation with his string of blockbusters in the '70s and '80s. Is it any surprise that he remembers his own past as a movie-loving kid of the era might see it?

As Sammy grows older and learns to see the shades of gray in his life, the style of The Fabelmans loses the frenetic stiltedness of an early sitcom. By the time the movie ends, in the mid-1960s, it leans more toward the heightened naturalism of Spielberg's own early films. The performances relax, allowing the actors to shine. And the director inserts a few winks to the audience that invite us to see the movie as a memoir with a deliberate degree of built-in artifice.

Although Sammy is an obvious stand-in for Spielberg, he remains something of a cipher until the last third of the movie, when a move to southern California forces him to reckon with bullying, antisemitism and his first love. For the most part, our attention is firmly on the frustrated artist Mitzi and her fraught relationships with her husband and his best friend, played by Seth Rogen in a performance that both defines and complicates the concept of a mensch.

While Dano does some impressively subtle work as a subtle man, Williams is the riveting presence here. With her pageboy cut and ever-present scarlet lipstick, Mitzi comes off as a cross between the young Mia Farrow and a silent film star — a creature of the movies, aware of but still controlled by her own love of high drama.

This is a woman who refuses to clip her Cruella de Vil nails for a televised piano recital and who impulse buys a pet monkey because "I needed to laugh." Mitzi could easily have been a caricature, but Williams gives her enough self-consciousness to be a tragic figure, always grasping on some level the gap between her pretensions and reality. Mitzi both epitomizes and understands the selfish aspect of artists, including her son — a theme that gives The Fabelmans some bite.

Spielberg isn't afraid to hint at the dark side of filmmaking: Sammy uses it to spin marvels from the ordinary, but the people on the other side of his camera aren't always happy with how he sees them. The Fabelmans reflects on cinema's power to heighten reality, with everything good and bad that entails, while exemplifying that enhancement in every frame.

Watching Sammy fall in love with the silver screen, I remembered how seeing Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind at age 9 expanded my world by filling my eyes and ears with wonders, beautiful and terrifying alike. This filmmaker has earned his victory lap — on the big screen.

If you like this, try...

Spielberg (2017; HBO Max, rentable): Susan Lacy's comprehensive documentary about the director's life and career gives us another angle on his upbringing.

20th Century Women (2016; fubo, Hoopla, Kanopy, Paramount+, Showtime, rentable): Like The Fabelmans, Mike Mills' drama about a teen growing up in 1979 Santa Barbara is in large part a tribute to the filmmaker's mom — Annette Bening in a powerhouse performance.

Roma (2018; Netflix): Here's yet another heartfelt autobiographical film from an auteur — but director Alfonso Cuarón puts a spin on the traditional "portrait of the artist" by putting the family's housekeeper in the protagonist position.