Wednesday, March 15, 2023

Oscar Film Journal: The Fabelmans (2022)

Welcome back to the Oscar Film Journal, here at!  I'm on a roll, let's keep it goin'....

"Hollywood is so out of ideas Steven Spielberg had to make a movie about Steven Spielberg."  Alright, that was a good one, Jimmy Kimmel.  

Yes, today's subject is the semiautobiographical The Fabelmans, directed and co-written by legendary auteur Steven Spielberg, about his teen years as a budding filmmaker, amid his parents' dissolving marriage.  Starring Michelle Williams, Paul Dano, Seth Rogen and relative newcomer Gabriel LaBelle as young Steven (called Sam Fabelman in the film), The Fabelmans begins with a five-year-old Sam and his first moviegoing experience.  His parents take him to see The Greatest Show on Earth, and Sam is captivated/terrified by that film's climactic train crash sequence.  For Hanukkah he receives a toy train set and becomes obsessed with recreating the scene, much to his father's chagrin.  But his free-spirited, piano-playing mom shows him how to film the staged crash with a home movie camera so he can watch it over and over instead of damaging the toy train.  From there little Sam is hooked on making movies, already possessing of an innate cinematic eye.  Fast-forward a decade and teenage Sam is a prodigious young director, creating westerns and war films with his Boy Scout troop.  But his left-brained father Burt thinks he should abandon his "hobby" and focus on starting a real career, while his mother Mitzi becomes visibly unhappy in their marriage and is drawn instead to Burt's best friend Bennie.  Sam finds himself caught in the middle, using filmmaking as a way to avoid dealing with personal conflicts.
This is easily and obviously Spielberg's most personal film in many years, and the script seemingly recreates episodes and moments from his actual childhood.  There's a very real quality to the family-centered scenes and I wouldn't be surprised if most of them transpired more or less exactly as he's written them here - conversations and details just ring very true.  Apparently the filmmaking sequences were taken almost beat-for-beat from Spielberg's teenage experiences, and we're treated to neat special effects innovations like when he creates little catapults in the dirt to convey wartime explosions, or when he literally pokes pinholes in his western film to simulate gun flashes.  But it's the personal drama that's front and center, and when it's focused on Sam and his family it works completely.  The later chapters about Sam's California high school dramas aren't quite so effective; the scenes where he's being bullied by the California jocks and trying to navigate his first romance feel a bit like an afterschool special, not helped by the amateurish turns of Sam Rechner and Oakes Fegley as the main bullies.  

Michelle Williams gives yet another fantastic performance as the emotionally fragile Mitzi, who's at her happiest and most free around Bennie but falls into a crippling depression when Burt moves the family away from him.  Williams is one of those actors whose crying scenes are contagious; you can't help choking up instantly.  Dano is emotionally stunted and oblivious as Burt, either not aware of what's going on behind the scenes or simply not equipped to handle it, and quite out of touch with Sam's passion for film.  Like so many parents of that era and beyond, Burt is so concerned about Sam traveling the safe and established route to success he doesn't allow for the possibility of another way.  But Gabriel LaBelle is the breakout, handling all of Sam's conflicted and internalized emotions expertly, while fully letting us in as he discovers the power and subjectivity of the camera.  A crucial moment along these lines occurs when he edits home movies from a family camping trip and discovers Mitzi's affair with Bennie, which drives a wedge between Sam and his mother for years.  Later one of the high school bullies confronts him after his documentary about the class beach trip is shown at the senior dance; Sam's editing has made the bully look like a superhero when inside he feels like anything but.  Film is a powerful visual medium and despite the old saying, yes the camera CAN lie.

There's been speculation of a possible sequel to The Fabelmans since the story ends just as Sam gets his first gig in Hollywood.  As a lifelong Spielberg fan I'd be very interested in seeing an autobiographical look at his rise to fame and artistic freedom, but Spielberg has said it will only happen if the passion for it strikes him.  In the meantime though, The Fabelmans is a very engaging and intimate look at the events and motivations that drove Spielberg to become one of the world's great cinematic artists, and at the same time a love letter to film itself.  

I give the movie ***1/2 out of ****.

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