Even when not in his strongest or most captivating arena, director Steven Spielberg always manages to reel in a waiting viewer for something magical. Yes, the more challenging or dismal entries in his catalog can often feign the same reaction, less frequently infusing some manner of personal experience. Protection, curiosity, or solidarity. Any one of those three pillars, if not all, has molded the auteur’s background, a consistent drumbeat that’s never too far away from his mind. The first of which he’s only now directly confronting in a semi-autobiographical lens with a story plucked from, and clearly about, his childhood. The Fabelmans may single out one person, one family, but it does so by celebrating the uniquities of resiliency toward family strife. The rigors any kid in the middle of falling out of love, a divorce, or a split in support will endure. It does encapsulate that spirit, albeit with uncertainty about where to lean or to land by the end of it all.
Where it starts is much more fluid, as Spielberg and co-writer Tony Kushner (West Side Story) navigate each phase of growing up with a near-flawless air. Save for the apparent junkiness of jumping ahead in time. One may think it buys someone time to propel the story along when it acts as a slight deterrent. Its heartfelt core doesn’t take any lumps while we’re introduced to the titular family. A post-war, baby boomer, Jewish-American clan of five – engineering dad Burt (Paul Dano), pianist mother Mitzi (Michelle Williams), sisters Lisa (Sophia Kopera), Natalie (Keeley Karsten) and Reggie (Julia Butters), and lone son Sammy (Gabrielle LaBelle). He’s the strongest witness to a big whirlwind, moving from New Jersey to Arizona, then to Northern California to seek opportunity.
A firm penchant for control consumes Sammy’s mind from the first time he witnesses a motion picture. Specifically, it’s the train crash from The Greatest Show on Earth that sparks his creativity, using his dad’s 8mm film camera to recreate the moment of impact. And that further engrosses his desire to become a filmmaker. Any capacity will do while struggling to belong in new surroundings. As an east coast tyke, he’s naive enough to maintain a one-track mind. In the small-town dry heat Arizonian bluffs, he could find his people, making western homages with his scout troop. Going to Cali with sights set on a Hollywood career, there falls the difficult part, as Sammy dodges antisemitic bullying and a complicated triangle between Mitzi, Burt, and his best friend Uncle Bennie (Seth Rogen). He’s merely cutting pieces together like isolated scenes to uncover a taxing conflict on his mom’s part, struggling to hide his own anguish before the rest of the family.
How that anxiety manifests in Sammy’s psyche bears the standard Spielbergian grace. And it does take a capable actor versed in precision to portray those internal rifts. LaBelle owns those prerequisites, vulnerable yet accommodating, maintaining a cool head in senior year hierarchies, occupying its allies and enemies outside of the home. One moment, he’s falling for ultra-religious classmate Monica (Chloe East). Another, he’s standing up against jock bullies Logan (Sam Rechner) and Chad (Oakes Fegley), gripping onto sanity for dear life.
These variables can’t avoid sinking into trope-laden territory; a familiar ground for Spielberg, much like that nascent childlike wonder. Any effort to emulate the finite sensitivity of Amy Heckerling’s “high school hell” tales causes the stone to bury further in the sand, despite delivering the most genuine (and misplaced) laughs in the script. Sammy’s character provokes a bevy of optimism, even when his head is entirely in the clouds, or staring at his editing machine, opening a door to needless stagnation within his subplot. Reggie’s sisterly reasoning makes for a welcome reproach, which Butters plays with calm, swift redirection.
The parental grudging wishes it could be as subtle or restrained, however. At a certain point, it tends to detract from the son’s weary ambition, without impacting performance strengths. Rogen’s third wheel elicits an ebullient, if not awkward charm. Dano nails the upper-crust, business-centric dad type who won’t shoot down a kid’s ambition but steer to think logically. That puts his bond with Sammy in a permanent state of awkwardness, placing Williams in a captive position to merge the strewn puzzle pieces. She steals the show, unafraid to stifle the truths she’s scuffling with atop a fragile tightrope. In no small words, she is a gentle, untiring revelation, arresting the room with her forlorn demeanor. Ditto for her Uncle Boris (a sure-footed Judd Hirsch), who appears only once in a moment of great strife, but whose monologuing affirms Sammy’s ambition not to go full Icarus.
Kushner and Spielberg’s fondness for the past may not be so lucky, as story objectives take a turn for the lofty, almost unobtainable. And before long, particularly in the middle third, they’re left grasping to anything still tethered. We may never wander away from any prior semblance of reality, but the duo still fumbles with a consistent flow, traveling between eras and moods with truly little effort to transition more smoothly. With how many odd cutaways and crossfades there are, one wonders if this pair would’ve made easier work out of writing a more encompassing miniseries with an improved aim for structure. And growing respect for John Williams’ simplistic musical theming, Janusz Kaminski’s warmly grainy appreciation for Americana, or Michael Khan’s editorial knack to unite two differing perspectives from the same character.
Any script refinement would’ve benefited Spielberg’s still decent fortunes and boosted an ever-present emotional compass. The Fabelmans begins strong, lingering on lengthy uncertainty, and closing in a manner callous and rushed, despite a welcome cameo by another famed director. The idea of family trauma and regret had been covered more palatably with films like E.T., or the better half of Hook. There was still much to enjoy, layered performances and an equally empathic focus preventing its pace from derailing altogether. The audience I sat amongst was very receptive, laughing and applauding whenever a moment appeared relatable. I could not deny its base satisfaction, touching on serious subject matter with a respectful, occasionally whimsical slant. At the same time, however, with its year-end potential all but assured, the question remains, why is it such a (low-key) delight when its imperfections are clear? There may not be a definite answer this time, only a distraction, a decent cinematic escape. The Fabelmans can at least be that escape. (B-; 3.5/5 Horns Up!)
The Fabelmans opens in wide release November 23; rated PG-13 for some strong language, thematic elements, brief violence and drug use; 151 minutes.