THE FABELMANS – Review by Diane Carson

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The Fabelmans presents Spielberg’s family story.

Director Steven Spielberg, who needs no introduction, has co-written, produced, and directed his most personal movie to date, the autobiographical The Fabelmans. Beginning January 10, 1952, in New Jersey, progressing through 1964 high school graduation, and concluding a year thereafter, the story profiles this family, anchored in Sammy, i.e., Steven. Beginning with his first film, Sammy is captivated.

Father, Burt, explains the cinematic process scientifically; mother Mitzi prefers a poetic, artistic perspective, saying, “Movies are dreams.” This dichotomy will recur, Spielberg’s father, in fact, an exceptionally gifted engineer. After Sammy experiences Cecil B. DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth, he wants a Lionel train set and soon restages the great train crash. Assorted events punctuate Sammy’s life: camping trips, Hannukah celebrations, family dinners, and, especially, super-8 and eventually 16-mm cameras for more elaborate films. Those include battle scenes with forty extras and Ditch Day, a high-school beach celebration, its style imitating the Beach Blanket films.

Along the way, the Fabelmans first move to Phoenix and then, mirroring family emotions becoming increasingly chilly, to northern California with distressing duplicity revealed on film. Spielberg touches on several other important issues: anti-Semitism, bullying, young love, religious devotion that divides rather than unites, those perplexing revelations of disloyalty, and having to guard these secrets. However, the central problem is that the film does just that—touches on concerns, superficially and simplistically, before moving on.

Ironically for Spielberg, no magic ignites the episodic two-and-a-half hour narrative exactly because the focus remains on Sammy’s films. Their inclusion positions viewers at a cinematic remove, a distancing from important action that drains drama. This occurs despite fine performances by Michelle Williams as Mitzi, Paul Dano as Burt, and Gabriel LaBelle as teenage Sammy. The music and cinematography imitate the 50s and 60s time periods, without appeal. In press clips Spielberg says this is about memory not metaphor, that “I wanted people to see their own families.” Alas, as remembered, I found The Fabelmans lackluster and clichéd.

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Diane Carson

Diane Carson, Ph.D., Professor Emerita, has reviewed films for over 25 years and has covered the Cannes, Telluride, Toronto, Palm Springs, and Sundance festivals. She writes for KDHX, 88.1 FM. St. Louis’ community radio. One of the founders of the St. Louis International Film Festival, she continues to serve on juries. A past president of the University Film and Video Association, she taught film studies and production at St. Louis Community College and at Webster University. Her new book, written with two colleagues, is “Appetites and Anxieties: Food, Film, and the Politics of Representation,” Wayne State U. Press, 2014.