Steven Spielberg has always been a director who cares deeply about the artistry behind his films.
Influenced by some of the great filmmakers of the past – most notably John Ford – Spielberg is an exceptional, introspective master of cinema with a clear voice and vision who truly wants to bring magic to the screen at every opportunity.
His latest film, The Fabelmans, is a semi-autobiographical experience that captures so much about what makes Spielberg a great filmmaker, especially when audiences see things through the eyes of young protagonist Sammy.
But at the same time, The Fabelmans has major flaws due to the film’s uneven storytelling and general lack of cohesive chemistry between its three notable stars.
Set over a decade from the mid-1950s to early 1960s, the film follows a young boy whose worldview changes so completely because of his first moviegoing experience that he sees life through a camera lens. The Fabelmans also fashions itself as a larger domestic drama in a loving Jewish-American family that struggles with the malaise of the American dream amid unspoken marital problems.
The most prestige-laden film of 2022, The Fabelmans is a languid cinematic experience that will certainly divide audiences who love the storytelling but not necessarily all the characters throughout.
At the core of The Fabelmans is a magnetic performance from Gabriel LaBelle as teenage Sammy. The newcomer allows viewers to see things from a completely fresh perspective in an almost reverse ingenue sort of way.
From the time he first appears on screen about 20 minutes into the film, LaBelle is thoroughly engaging but not overwhelming in becoming a perfect protagonist for audiences to project themselves onto, or more aptly, to project Spielberg himself onto.
The parents Burt and Mitzi, capably portrayed by Paul Dano and Michelle Williams respectively, are terrific in individual moments though their complete lack of on-screen chemistry is only somewhat incentivized by the screenplay and it’s often unclear how or why the couple are meant to be together in the first place.
When audiences are allowed to see their relationship through Sammy’s worldview, it makes somewhat more sense, but scenes work much better when the two actors are separated physically as much as emotionally.
Williams is especially heartbreaking in the dramatic moments and Dano has the capacity for stoic emotional strength, but Spielberg’s major interest isn’t in either character or exploring their relationship, but rather how Sammy’s parents impact Sammy himself.
Seth Rogen’s awkward placement in the film as Uncle Bennie really stands out like a sore thumb as his natural affability plays against Rogen’s need to be more grounded in the story and it’s always at the front of audiences’ minds that it’s Rogen and not Uncle Bennie, which severely hurts a major plotline.
On a technical level, The Fabelmans astounds with some captivating cinematography from Janusz Kaminski who has the difficult job to create the world of The Fabelmans overall but on a smaller scale, capturing Sammy’s individual filmmaking style and cinematic vision with period cameras.
Over the course of the film, audiences see Sammy – and by proxy, Spielberg himself – evolve as a filmmaker and some of the most intriguing moments of The Fabelmans come from seeing a scene play out naturally with Sammy capturing it all and then almost immediately reenact that scene from Sammy’s perspective behind the camera. Both are masterfully captured by Kaminski in different styles that create a layered cinematic texture to Spielberg’s film.
Without question, Spielberg’s film is sure to receive much acclaim this awards season as the presumptive frontrunner for Best Picture at next year’s Oscars although it certainly isn’t the best film of the year. The Fabelmans is a shoo-in for up to double-digit nominations including in picture, director, original screenplay, actress, cinematography, score and production design.
Certainly among the year’s most prestigious films, The Fabelmans celebrates both youthful exuberance and a bright-eyed wonder for cinema that makes it a must see in theaters and despite not being quite at the upper echelon of Spielberg’s illustrious career, it’s a movie that will remain in the back of cinephiles’ minds for some time to come.