The father of the modern blockbuster, Steven Spielberg is often dismissed as a crowd-pleasing fantasist. He’s most associated with surreal images like the bike flying across the face of the moon in E.T. The Extra Terrestrial and the boulder rolling behind Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark. But many forget the way his camera also focuses on the ephemera of everyday life. His latest film, The Fabelmans, reminds us early on with a shot of paper plates piling up and then disappearing under a disposable tablecloth. Here, we remember how Spielberg can make even the most mundane things cinematic.
However, that awareness of Spielberg’s touch is largely what makes The Fabelmans so engaging. Without it, we’re left with not much more than a solid coming-of-age drama.
The film follows Sammy Fabelman, a semi-autobiographical stand-in for Spielberg. We first meet him in the early 1950s as a little boy (Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord) who loves toys and laments his Jewish home’s lack of Christmas lights. He needs to film his toy trains crashing to feel a sense of control, his mother (Michelle Williams) suggests, as she admits to loving musical performance for the clear sense of direction it provides in contrast to the mess of life. Spielberg and fellow co-writer Tony Kushner show keen insight here that they never quite reach in the rest of the film.
We eventually catch up to Sammy as a teenager (Gabriel LaBelle) who’s much more serious about the creative work his father (Paul Dano) writes off as a hobby. As Sammy grows older, he captures harsher realities through filmmaking — from recreations of war to fly-on-the-wall peeks at his parents’ relationship problems. Here, the film mirrors Spielberg’s own evolution as a storyteller, launching off into the light of escapism and detouring into darker, more intimate territory.
Part of our fascination in watching this comes from knowing we’re seeing Spielberg’s personal trajectory. As we witness his mother struggle to hide her vulnerability, we see where the inspiration came for Dee Wallace’s character in E.T. And as his father constantly uproots the family in what seems like an unending soul search, we see the seeds of Richard Dreyfuss’s character in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The image of Sammy as a Boy Scout hunting for scorpions in the desert recalls River Phoenix as a young Indiana Jones in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.
Once you drop down from that meta level and see the story at face value, however, it feels underwhelmingly low-key. LaBelle and Williams bring an emotional heft to their characters that’s missing from the surrounding story. Dano shows hints of a more layered performance with which Spielberg and Kushner don’t allow him to cut loose. They suggest he envies Sammy’s control of more creative endeavors, but they don’t elaborate on this much more.
Seth Rogen delivers a warm, charming performance as a longtime family friend who earns the nickname Uncle Bennie. And Judd Hirsch pops up in a show-stopping performance as Great Uncle Boris, whose words about loving art more than life hit a little too close to home for Sammy.
The Fabelmans is ultimately more of a quiet family drama than a boisterous behind-the-scenes look at the humble beginnings of a master filmmaker. As the film nears its end, it seems to solemnly trail off, making its final, triumphant note a bit jarring. But perhaps that’s just the way that moment arrived for Spielberg in real life. The film stays grounded for the most part, rarely soaring as high as the classics it foreshadows. It mostly makes us appreciate them even more. But maybe someday we’ll look back on this one with the same fondness.