REVIEW: Magic of movies in ‘Fabelmans’ overshadowed by melodrama

The early life of renowned filmmaker Steven Spielberg comes to life in this semi auto-biographical coming of age picture.

The film tells the story of a Sammy Fabelman (Gabriel LaBelle), a teen who has been fascinated by the magic of movies since his first childhood theater experience. As he gets older, that fascination becomes a passion, and he begins making his own movies.

Sammy’s filmmaking is encouraged by his mother Mitzi (Michelle Williams), but his dad Burt (Paul Dano) sees it as more of a hobby. The relationships he has with his parents continue to be a focal point throughout the picture, and things get even more complicated for Sammy as he learns about something going on behind the scenes.

Spielberg is a director that has put his heart on his sleeve before, and he sure as hell does it in his latest picture, probably more-so than anytime before. There’s separation between Spielberg’s story and “The Fabelmans” in name only, because it’s clear this is a movie with a lot of personal meaning. 

While it’s apparent that this is an important work to the filmmaker, though, that meaning doesn’t transcend the screen and reach the audience. There is some charm seeing a boy on a coming-of-age track to becoming a filmmaker, but the conflict at the heart of the flick revolving around family drama never feels all that compelling, making that two and a half hour runtime feel longer.

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Courtesy Amblin Entertainment, Reliance Entertainment and Universal Pictures.

One thing really dragging the family issues down, whether it’s Sammy’s dad seeing the filmmaking effort as nothing more than a hobby or his parents having some relationship issues, is that it feels artificial. It’s almost like there’s a haze over the family and their interactions, where it’s hard to see them as real people.

There’s a level of sentimentality and gloss over so many scenes, even those where things are serious and there’s anger to go around. It really pulls an audience out of the moment. 

Sammy’s coming-of-age feels rather contained to just his family experience, too. Outside of the first scene where he attends the theater, there’s not much of the outside world that seems to be shaping him. Compare this to Kenneth Branagh’s film “Belfast,” which was inspired by the director’s upbringing in the midst of the Troubles and religious conflicts. 

Or James Gray’s recent film “Armageddon Time,” which was inspired by that director’s upbringing in New York, capturing systemic racism and the start of the Reagan-era in America. It’s not to say every coming-of-age film needs to have that time’s political climate or feature socioeconomic factors as a background, but they can add layers to who the protagonist is becoming.

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It’s completely understandable that seeing one’s parents’ relationship go through rough waters, or a parent not fully believing in one’s passion, and even being bullied can have a major effect on who a person is going to be. Yet all of that here doesn’t feel all that authentic, and that’s all there really is besides Sammy’s dedication to making movies.

As previously said, to the film’s credit, those moments where Sammy is shown making movies does provide the picture with some charm. They are the moments where things feel convincing and the passion behind this project really breaks through and hits a viewer.

Helping those scenes and others work is Gabriel LaBelle, who gives probably the best performance of the feature. He nails it in scene-after-scene, and it’s admirable considering this is just his fourth acting credit on the big screen.

Unfortunately, both Michelle Williams and Paul Dano, who’ve done superb work in the past, disappoint. Williams portrays the character as if she has little personality other than being a ditzy dreamer. Dano, meanwhile, feels completely miscast for the role, as it was hard to buy him in the father figure role. 

Spielberg obviously knows how to make a movie so “The Fabelmans” of course looks like a fine, polished work. It’s nowhere near being a bad effort, yet it is a below average film with some forgettable melodrama that drags on too long. It has some bright moments here and there, such as a good one with Judd Hirsch making a small appearance. However, this mostly fails to satisfy. 2.5 out of 5.

Author: Matthew Liedke

Journalist and film critic in Minnesota. Graduate of Rainy River College and Minnesota State University in Moorhead. Outside of movies I also enjoy sports, craft beers and the occasional video game.

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