Following his critically acclaimed work on the deeply problematic West Side Story remake, Steven Spielberg premiered his first-ever festival film at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). The Fabelmans, a cinematic memoir of sorts, depicts a fictionalized version of Spielberg’s own family and upbringing, but loses Spielberg’s avatar to personal conflicts along the way.
The Fabelmans follows Sammy Fabelman (played by Gabriel LaBelle as a young man and Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord as a child), a fictionalized version of Spielberg, as he explores his love of filmmaking throughout his coming-of-age. Sammy navigates growing up in a Jewish family in predominantly non-Jewish neighborhoods and having to move often for his father’s job. Despite many changes in scenery, the one constant in Sammy’s life is his love of creating films with his sisters and friends. Born of a pianist mother and a computer engineer father, Sammy has always had a predisposition for the arts. And after just one trip to the cinema, the young Fabelman becomes obsessed with the moving image for the rest of his life.
As good-hearted as it is, The Fabelmans suffers from a glaring lack of narrative focus. The film is beautiful when it remains focused on Sammy’s years as a budding filmmaker, capturing the joy of creating cinema from nothing but a love of theatrics and a little ingenuity. But the first act of this ostensible love letter to filmmaking and childhood devolves into unpacked trauma, detracting too heavily from a fluid story arc.
The Fabelmans‘ tonal shifts also feel inconsistent, lulling the audience into a dreamlike state during a dizzying second act. For much of its length, the film’s pacing moves like molasses, scattering momentum as it goes. One thread that remains evident is Sammy’s pursuit of the truth through his filmmaking. It’s the one element present in the second act that tries to keep The Fabelmans anchored to its central theme. However, the thread is too thin to bear the heavy 151-minute runtime.
Spielberg’s attempt at creating an instant Old-Hollywood classic is artificial at best. We simply get lost throughout. The film does this, too, often losing itself to details that are irrelevant to whatever its narrative arc happens to be at the time. It’s mainly for this reason that The Fabelmans feels like a constipated attempt at a magnum opus. When the film screened at TIFF, Spielberg admitted during the Q&A that his co-writer, Tony Kushner, also acted as Spielberg’s therapist throughout the process. The iconic filmmaker is likely too close to this particular story to have written from a more critical perspective.
In fact, the tonal dissonance of the writing comes through even in the visuals. The obnoxious flair that Spielberg adds to the cinematography is simply out of place in many scenes. Of course there are a few beautiful shots. One in particular, of Michelle Williams dancing in front of headlights, is sure to cement its place in an Academy Awards montage simply because it does indeed capture that Old Hollywood look and feel. But the whipping of the camera in small, quotidian spaces is unpleasant. Spielberg’s intention to bringing wonder to the mundane is admirable, and it works in The Fabelmans‘ first act and for its final scene. In between, though, it falls flat.
Having said that, Gabriel LaBelle’s earnest performance as a young Sammy Fabelman is a genuine saving grace. His ability to convey the burden of being the eldest child through just his eyes is quietly captivating. LaBelle is a stark opposite to Michelle Williams, whose portrayal of Spielberg’s late mother tries too hard, more often than not coming across like a caricature of Judy Garland. Williams’ mannerisms feel plastic and insincere at times, though there are also moments where her emotional pull shines through. Her performance is not particularly worthy of awards season buzz, though Williams’ pull rides on Spielberg’s name on the film. Plainly put, The Fabelmans‘ awards season chances rest exclusively and entirely on Spielberg’s reputation.
Despite its current critical acclaim, The Fabelmans is unlikely to win over moviegoers who aren’t already mega-fans of Spielberg’s work. Its story, however sincerely intended, is overly long and bloated. Will it have a moving impact on some? Without a doubt. But is it memorable enough in the long run? Not when compared to Spielberg’s more iconic work.
The Fabelmans premiered at the 47th Toronto International Film Festival on September 10, 2022. It will be released in theaters on November 11, 2022. The film is directed by Steven Spielberg and stars Gabriel LaBelle, Michelle Williams, Paul Dano, Seth Rogen, and Judd Hirsch.