I have to admit that I don’t have quite the history with Steven Spielberg that most movie fans probably do. I grew up with one Indiana Jones VHS tape –The Temple of Doom. I didn’t know this movie was part of a series until years later when my dad got a DVD set of the then-trilogy. I didn’t see E.T. or Jaws until years later, when I sought them out for myself. I love the Indiana Jones movies, and Spielberg is undoubtedly a titanic talent in the industry; nobody is questioning that, least of all me. I only say all this to clarify my status as more of a passive Spielberg appreciator than an outright fanatic. When ads came out for The Fabelmans, I assumed it would be good. Paul Dano and Michelle Williams are among the most talented actors of their generation, and it’s a passion project about family and love for the movies. What could go wrong? Let’s take a look.
Sammy Fabelman grows up with his parents (Williams, Dano) and three sisters in the mid-20th century. His love for his family is rivaled only by his passion for filmmaking. The film follows the Fabelmans through trial and triumph until Sammy gets his foot in the door of the movie industry.
The Fabelmans is a semi-autobiographical exploration of adolescence, family struggles, and determination. What counts as a spoiler depends on how much you know about Spielberg’s personal life, so I’ll avoid the things that surprised me. My husband knew much more about Spielberg’s childhood and family than I did going in, which definitely impacted our reactions. The film’s greatest strength is undoubtedly its cast. Dano and Williams are just as great as I expected, but I was surprised by Gabriel LaBelle as the teenage Sammy. He really looks like Spielberg, and his performance is outstanding. Seth Rogen plays family friend Bennie Lowie, and he’s mostly funny but gets a couple of good serious moments. Mateo Zoryan as young Sammy, and the various actresses who play his sisters, are good too, but I don’t have much to say about them. Michelle Williams is the film’s clear standout, having the broadest range of emotions to convincingly portray. But I also loved Paul Dano’s restrained, thoughtful approach to the father character. I don’t have any technical problems with the plot; it’s just Spielberg’s early life story, more or less. I don’t have much to say about it, either, though. I didn’t enjoy some aspects of the story, but I can’t say they should have been cut. I’ll talk more about this later.
The cinematography is fantastic as well. Despite being a family drama, Spielberg infuses the film with a look I can only describe as cinematic. My favorite scenes are when Sammy experiments with the camera and eventually shoots home movies. Lighting and camera angles are used to tremendous effect. The score by John Williams is more understated than what I’m used to from him, but of course, it’s good. And it makes sense to have a more tame soundtrack for a family drama than Jaws or Indiana Jones.
I’m frustrated by this movie. I can’t remember the last time a film’s quality stood in such stark contrast to how I feel about it. I don’t have technical critiques for The Fabelmans because Spielberg covers all his bases, as one would expect. The actors all pull their weight, and then some. But on a personal level, I hated this movie. About halfway through, I got very uncomfortable, and I felt a mixture of stress and anger for most of the rest of the runtime. To call The Fabelmans a competently made film would be an understatement, but I never want to see it again. To avoid spoilers, I’ll have to tiptoe some here, so bear with me. I don’t think this is Spielberg’s intent. He loves his family, right? This is partially a tribute to his parents, whom he loves and misses. And I felt quite a bit of sympathy for the father throughout the film. But two things made it impossible for me to enjoy this movie: Mitzi Fabelman (Michelle Williams) and Sammy’s high school experience. The high school thing isn’t very complex or surprising; as a Jew, Sammy is bullied relentlessly by the school jocks. They also give him a hard time because he’s shorter and weaker than them. I’m sure this is supposed to create anxiety in the viewer; ideally, you want to feel some of what the character is going through. But I can’t deal with this particular issue; without getting into it too much, it hits too close to home. I swear, I actually felt the fight-or-flight instinct kick in, and I was sweating in the theater seat. I can’t say this isn’t effective, but it just isn’t for me.
As for Mitzi, I hate her so much. Normally, I can get past disliking a single character, especially if it’s not the lead. Sammy, his father, and all three sisters are perfectly likable. But Mitzi is a loose cannon who essentially goes crazy throughout the movie and refuses to seek help until it’s too late. She does absurd things like adopting a monkey to calm herself down. This is a perfect metaphor for her relationship with her children. She didn’t think about what was best for the monkey, right? It’s not about the monkey; it’s about her. She wants to feel better, so she takes in a wild animal she doesn’t know how to care for. With the Fabelman kids, it’s exactly the same; it’s always about what Mitzi needs or wants. The most cathartic moment in the film is when one of the daughters tells Mitzi she’s being selfish and ruining everything. I usually can’t stand outbursts like that, but she’s right. As a parent, you’re always supposed to put your kids first. They didn’t ask to be here, and you get all the opportunities and choices. Mitzi repeatedly makes the most selfish, illogical choices that hurt her family. This may be realistic; I can’t criticize it for that. But I don’t like it. I don’t enjoy watching it play out. The fights between Mitzi and Burt (Dano) stressed me out so much they took me out of the movie. I turned to my husband at one point and said, “I think I actually hate this movie.” This was genuinely hard for me to sit through because Mitzi gets progressively more selfish, manic, and careless as the film progresses. I’m not sure this is a helpful observation as to whether you should see the movie because it’s so subjective. Marriage Story, The Theory of Everything, and The Unbearable Lightness of Being had the same feeling for me. So if you didn’t like those, I’d skip this. If you love heavy drama like that, go for it!
The Fabelmans isn’t for me, and I don’t think I’ll be revisiting it any time soon. However, the acting and technical execution are above reproach.
The Fabelmans isn't for me, and I don't think I'll be revisiting it any time soon. However, the acting and technical execution are above reproach.