Steven Spielberg’s The Fabelmans had all the ingredients to ascend as cinema’s new darling. It boasted an accomplished, beloved director at the helm of a story that Hollywood loves – one about itself. Yet, as this semi-autobiographical film plods on, there is an unshakeable sense that in reaching for the stars, The Fabelmans instead lands somewhere more mediocre and disappointing.
The coming-of-age story centres on Sammy Fabelman (Gabriel LaBelle), who becomes entranced by the spectacle of a train crash onscreen when his parents – Mitzi (Michelle Williams) and Burt (Paul Dano) – take him to watch Cecil B. DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth. He becomes obsessed with the scene, re-creating the crash with a model set he receives as a gift. Mitzi encourages him to film the event with Burt’s camera instead, which allows Sammy to “see” the crash over and over – introducing him to cinema’s profoundly magical illusion of immortality.
Sammy becomes a boyhood avatar for Spielberg’s own love affair with film. As we watch Sammy reaching towards his dreams, the film seems to carry great promise – assured of fulfilment by the audience’s knowledge of Spielberg’s own real-life success. What seems to be the film’s greatest flaw then is its determination to smash the audience over the head with every dramatic note. The dialogue is sometimes too obvious and the plot points too emphatic. Not only does The Fabelmans violate the golden rule of “show, don’t tell”, the film pretty much feels like it is screaming in your face: Look, a boy falls in love with film! Creativity! Follow your dreams! This great Spielberg experiment in blending fiction and personal reality ends up feeling uncertain of itself – and the audience is dragged along in The Fabelmans’ own search for its identity.
In its better moments, the dramatic range of The Fabelmans’ narrative – family issues, racial discrimination, creative ambitions, romantic frustrations, adolescent friendships as well as the joys and pains of growing up – sustains the film’s momentum and curiosity. There is an extraordinary courage from Spielberg in illuminating so much of his family life and upbringing – warts, quarrels and all.
The film’s all-star ensemble musters every inch of their talents to put together a heartwarming crowd-pleaser that will surely still have a wonderful run during awards season. As the film oscillates between tired family drama and several glorious sequences (Sammy’s project with other Boy Scouts and the family camping trip come to mind), one can’t help but wonder if the good intentions behind making The Fabelmans might have been better realised through a different genre – a whole-hearted commitment to either fiction or reality.