Divorce has always haunted director Steven Spielberg's works. From the broken family in E.T. to the divorced father in The War of the Worlds, this acclaimed director has always had this element creeping around the edges of his films. In The Fabelmans, he finally makes his divorce film.
Spielberg is perhaps the most storied of directors. He has been open about his upbringing, including his eccentric mother, and his father who loved her and that they moved a lot. While a senior in high school, his parents divorced and this critical event has shaped many of the themes in his movies. In The Fabelmans, Spielberg is wrestling with his past directly.
Sammy Fabelman (Gabriel LaBelle) is the director's stand-in. In the first moments of the film Sammy is in the middle of his parents, his dad Burt (Paul Dano) on the left and his mom Mitzi (Michelle Williams) on the right. They are preparing a nervous Sammy for his first film-theater experience. His computer-whiz father explains to him how moving pictures are just a series of still images played back at 24 frames per second and that our mind tricks us into seeing them as a seamless movement. His pianist and artist mother refers to movies as dreams. The difference between them is apparent from frame one.
For Sammy, seeing The Greatest Show on Earth is a revelation. He asks for a train set for Hannaka so he can recreate the crash he saw on the big screen. As he grows up, he begins to become a better filmmaker, making short films with his Boy Scouts troop. Along the way, he discovers his mom has kept a secret from the family.
The film doesn't get much more complicated than that. Sammy grows his love of filmmaking into a career choice while his family falls apart. While LaBelle is good as Sammy, his performance is often overshadowed by a slew of great performances. He can't hold our attention when he is in scenes with Judd Hirsch or David Lynch. These actors play key figures in Sammy's life and their scenes are among the film's best. Hirsch plays the estranged Uncle Boris who recognizes Sammy's need for the arts in moments and encourages him to "join the circus." Lynch steals the scene he is in as John Ford, the acclaimed director who gives Sammy an important lesson in camera placement.
Dano and Williams are both magnificent as Sammy's parents. Williams gets the showier role and makes the most of it. She adds both light and darkness to Mitzi, a woman pulled apart by two different desires. The role could have easily been "big" but Williams grounds every moment with a natural energy that is heartbreaking at times. Dano has the quieter role but equally gives a natural performance that breaks your heart. The Fabelmans features some bravura filmmaking from Spielberg. You can feel his love for recreating these family details and the first films he ever made. The film is funny and heartbreaking in equal measure. A few moments feel a bit clunky as when Spielberg calls out the origin of some of his signature shots. There is also a sense towards the middle of the film that the story is directionless. The film could use a bit of tightening up to keep the narrative momentum going.
The Fabelmans is not peak Spielberg but it is still a great film. It may work best as a companion piece to a great career of making some of the most beloved films ever. He can't help but soften the edges of this story of divorce, likely to not paint either parent as a bad person. This does rob the film of a bit more narrative punch but the immense amount of details of this family keeps the film consistently engaging.