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Spielberg’s lively, disjointed, semi-autobiographical odyssey: “The Fabelmans” review

<h6>“Steven Spielberg” by Gage Skidmore / <a href="https://flickr.com/photos/22007612@N05/35355075074" target="_self">CC BY-SA 2.0</a></h6>
“Steven Spielberg” by Gage Skidmore / CC BY-SA 2.0

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to make a movie about your childhood?

If you’re as fascinated by cinema as I, you’ve probably asked yourself this question before. Even if you’re not terribly interested in movies, though, you might’ve had a moment or two in your life when you looked out of the window of a train or car on a rainy day while listening to music, and imagined yourself as the main character in a coming-of-age drama.

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Unfortunately, whether we like to admit it or not, a movie about nearly any of our childhoods would probably suck (aside from that one gazing-out-the-window-yearningly scene, of course). That’s not to say that most of our childhoods are too boring to be molded into an interesting narrative; rather, the opposite. Such a long span of time undoubtedly contains plenty of delightful, tragic, and compelling anecdotes that, on their own, make solid stories to tell. The challenge is weaving these memories together in a way that both makes the film harmonious thematically and compact plot-wise.

Despite Steven Spielberg’s cinematic prowess and the valiant efforts he and co-writer Tony Kushner put into the script, Spielberg’s 34th feature film, “The Fabelmans,” isn’t quite able to overcome this challenge. The film’s delightful and lively first act is a strength, though, and the window into Spielberg’s early life as well as the film being his most personal project to date make it a worthwhile watch for more regular moviegoers. 

The film tells the story of Spielberg’s childhood from roughly ages six to 18. It starts with Sammy Fabelman, a proxy for six-year-old Spielberg played by Mateo Zoryon, discovering the magic of cinema when his parents take him to a showing of “The Greatest Show on Earth.” Sammy soon finds his own passion for filmmaking when staging a trainwreck with a model toy. The opening scenes culminate in a heartwarming montage that shows Sammy making a series of playful movies around the Fabelmans’ house with his sisters, played by Alina Brace and Birdie Borria, respectively.

As the first act concludes, though, and when the family moves from New Jersey to Arizona, tensions arise. Sammy’s enterprising engineer father, played by Paul Dano (“There Will Be Blood,” “The Batman”), takes issue with his son’s fascination with filmmaking, which the father considers a “hobby.” The family then undertakes a camping trip that goes to great lengths to showcase the personality differences between Sammy’s father and his mother Mitzi, played by Michelle Williams (“Manchester by the Sea,” “The Greatest Showman”), before Mitzi’s mother passes away. While making a film about the family’s camping trip in an effort to placate his grieving mother, Sammy discovers evidence that she was cheating on his father with his father’s best friend, Benny, who is played by Seth Rogen (“The Interview,” “50/50”).

The film’s drama begins to kick into gear as the family makes one final move, again for the father’s work, this time to northern California. The mother begins to miss Benny, leading to a divorce with Sammy’s father; Sammy, meanwhile, decides to quit filmmaking as he experiences bullying and anti-semitism at his new high school. These conflicts take the film to its ultimate conclusion, after a pre-credits runtime of just under two-and-a-half hours. 

The film’s length, unfortunately, is not entirely justified. While the film’s heartwarming first act establishes the film as an American “Cinema Paradiso,” the film quickly loses this feel, seemingly aiming to be more of a coming-of-age family drama in the mold of Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood.” Of course, this is not to suggest that no film can attempt to be two things at once; however, the writing required to sufficiently unify the two central themes of the film isn’t present. 

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There are times during the movie where the family dynamics and Sammy’s path as a filmmaker are married harmoniously: think his discovery of his mother’s infidelity through a film project, or his father’s criticism of filmmaking as merely a hobby. However, there are also large portions of the film, especially during Sammy’s high school years, where the two seem almost entirely unrelated. At a portion of the film that is meant to be ascending towards a climax, this dissonance undoes so much of the tension present earlier on, and causes the film to noticeably limp toward the end of its bloated runtime.

This disorganized thematic discussion leaves the viewer wondering what the movie was truly “about,” if anything. However, in truth, the movie might not actually be about much at all. Perhaps it was simply the aging Spielberg’s nostalgic attempt to preserve the story of his family for posterity in the wake of his parents’ recent passing.

“I thought it was gonna be a lot easier than it turned out to be, because I’ve certainly known the material and all the characters for my entire life,” Spielberg said at a press conference at the Toronto International Film Festival, where the film premiered. “And yet I found this to be, for me, a very daunting experience, because I was attempting in a semi-empirical way to recreate huge recollections, not only in my life but in the lives of my three sisters and my mother and father who are no longer with us.” 

While it is the occasional disconnectedness of these “huge recollections” that undo the film, they also manage to breathe a tremendous amount of life into the plot. Each scene is clearly carefully and lovingly rendered, and watching one of the most influential and talented directors of all time tell his own story is a moving experience in its own right, even if it doesn’t make for the best film.

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“I wouldn’t have done anything to hurt or disappoint my parents,” Spielberg told CBS’s “60 Minutes.” “To me it was more of a gift to them than any kind of a criticism about how my life and my sisters’ lives wasn’t as hunky-dory as people assume.”

Indeed, if many of us had the $40-million backing of a major studio to undertake such a project at that stage in our lives, we’d have to admit that we might do the same.

Wilson Conn is a co-head editor for the sports section at the ‘Prince.’ Please direct any corrections to corrections[at]dailyprincetonian.com.

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