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  • Writer's pictureJames McCleary

The Fabelmans // Film Review

A lot of people did not come into The Fabelmans with an open-mind, myself included.

Though the names are changed, director Steven Spielberg has made no secret of the film’s auto-biographical nature. Some critics have even gone so far as to call it his ‘origin story’; the tale of a young American boy discovering the power of cinema. This, combined with Spielberg’s reputation for wondrous family entertainment, led many to expect a schmaltzy, feel-good drama about the magic of movies, factory-made for the awards season.

Of course, the oft-misreported reality is that Spielberg has always contained multitudes beyond children’s entertainment. For every Indiana Jones, there’s an Empire of the Sun. This is the man who directed Jurassic Park and Schindler’s List in the same year, lest there be any doubt as to the range of his gifts. The Fabelmans falls more into the latter camp than the former; in portraying the dissolution of a Jewish family at the height of the American Dream, it is the kind of muted drama that stabs you softly, cutting away at your heart until you realise you’ve been bled dry by a violently psychological tragedy only masquerading as movie magic.

The film stars Gabriel LaBelle as Sammy Fableman, a sixteen-year old insert for Spielberg with a phenomenal eye for cameras held back only by a insecure streak which mostly typically presents itself through strained speech and the sense that any word choice could send him into a fully-fledged meltdown.

Sammy is the bomb under the table shared by his parents Burt (Paul Dano) and Mitzi (Michelle Williams), whose romance is both born and destroyed under the old principle of ‘opposites attract’. Their dynamic is communicated to us first in an opening scene wherein both parents try to explain the art of cinema to a young Sammy in the line for his first film.

Burt, an engineer, is fascinated with the technology of the projectors, reels and bulbs, while Mitzi simply describes the pictures as dreams come to life. Burt is a realist and Mitzi a fantasist, and as she proudly declares during a tense dinner scene midway through the film, “Sammy is on my side.”

Over the course of a tight two and a half hours, these differences push both parents to their most toxic extremes; Burt becomes cold and pragmatic, while Mitzi slips into delirious eccentricity. Sammy’s passion for film is their first and most frequent casualty, as Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner beg the question of whether it is even possible to create art in such a loveless home.

The Fabelmans eventually decides on the affirmative, and in demonstration Spielberg gives himself over entirely to the film, producing some of the finest craft work of his career. To this day, I remain in awe of this master’s ability to work without storyboarding, preferring to construct his frames and block his cast on the day of shooting, always to immaculate success. Whereas many might scoff at the idea of Sammy Fabelman’s ‘natural gift’, Spielberg himself is the living proof. Through reliving the trauma of his own shattering childhood, he has proven beyond any reasonable doubt that being a ‘family filmmaker’ requires so much more than earnest schmaltz. You have to be a little bit broken too.


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