The Fabelmans


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

The Fabelmans
"The trademark Spielberg visual flair is there from the outset and keeps this film interesting at times when the narrative is moving slowly, or when it lapses into melodrama."

A common response to being scared or shaken up by something is to try to recreate it. Many people find themselves doing this over and over again in their minds. Filmmakers have another option. When young Sammy Fabelman goes to see his first ever moving picture with his parents, in the mid 20th Century, he is nervous going in and shocked by a train crash he sees on the screen. Various attempts at small scale reenactments follow, concluding with the borrowing of his father’s camera so that he can film it for himself. Sammy is based on the young Steven Spielberg, In creating this film, the director seems to be trying to address his own past fears, but at a distance which allows for a mature perspective sometimes comically at odds with that of his young stand-in.

One of the great joys of creating art is that it often manifests truths which one was not hitherto aware of, and which may become visible only due to the insights of others or the passing of time. This is very much the case for Sammy, who begins to catalogue his family’s life from the age of just seven. We follow him until, at eighteen, his has an encounter with his idol which cements his understanding that what has begun as a hobby can become a career, but the trademark Spielberg visual flair is there from the outset and keeps this film interesting at times when the narrative is moving slowly, or when it lapses into melodrama. At two and a half hours it is overlong, and it falls prey to that excess of sentiment which has always been the director’s greatest weakness, though a little indulgence is understandable in something so close to autobiography. Fans will still find plenty to enjoy.

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Much of the story revolves around Sammy’s discovery – or rather, gradual recognition – of what most critics are describing as a family secret, though it feels more like something which everyone involved has tacitly agreed not to speak about, nor think about too much, for their mutual convenience. Though the precise boundaries of it remain uncertain for some time, it is scarecely believable that any adult could be wholly unaware of it. In the transition to adulthood, however, such delicate understandings, verging on hypocrisy, can be perceived as outrageous. Sammy, trying to establish his own course in the world (and engaging in his own small hypocrisies as he does so) upsets the balance with his bursts of unrefined emotion, and so jeopardises his own happiness along with that of his various loved ones.

It is, until then, quite a comfortable life. His father is successful and he doesn’t want for anything. He and his siblings are all well dressed and well supplied with toys, even if he is rather single-minded about his. He is also something of a solitary character, and we don’t get to know the siblings very well. Romantic coming of age experiences are well handled in a manner which builds upon the central themes without relating too closely thereto, and becomes an introduction to a more adult way of understanding the world.

It is not far into the film that we first see Sammy dealing with the experience of being Jewish in a largely Christian world, and although this doesn’t seem like a big deal at first, and we are privy to the joys of social experiences like Hanukkah, Sammy has to deal with aggressive anti-Semitism in high school. His response to this, and decision to chart his own course rather than be drawn into feuds, teases out interesting aspects of character and has consequences which remind us once again of the power of film to challenge the things we believe about ourselves.

Some of the most entertaining moments in the film come when we are privy to Sam’s early adventures in filmmaking. There are scenes here which look like precursors to Raiders Of The Lost Ark, and viewers who have made films themselves will be particularly amused by the combination of manipulation and inventiveness involved in their production. Spielberg strikes a good balance between these films within the film and the style of the whole, which depends much more heavily on the actors to do the heavy lifting.

Michelle Williams, one of those actors whose work has historically been underappreciated because of the way she disappears into her roles, works her magic once again, and may finally be rewarded for it, having attracted multiple award nominations. This may be a film about a young man growing up with many advantages, but it is also a film about a woman struggling to be true to herself in a world which was just beginning to allow for that, and the interaction between those two narratives is what really drives it.

For all that this is a story about falling in love with film, it is a film which reveals, in a myriad subtle ways, the real power and value of the medium, speaking its own truths. it might have been better a little less polished, a little more openly unsettling. In the end, everything feels too neat, too centred – and yet there is plenty to admire along the way.

Reviewed on: 26 Dec 2022
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Growing up in post-World War Two era Arizona, a young man named Sammy Fabelman discovers a shattering family secret and explores how the power of films can help him see the truth.

Director: Steven Spielberg

Writer: Tony Kushner, Steven Spielberg

Starring: Michelle Williams, Paul Dano, Seth Rogen, Gabriel LaBelle

Year: 2022

Runtime: 151 minutes

Country: US

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