Steven Spielberg has always shown a laser focus when dealing with the deep issues addressed in his feature films. Whether it has been the examination of the basis of primal fear in “Jaws” or the transformation of suburbia in “E.T.: the Extra-Terrestrial,” the much-heralded director has always delivered a clear picture.
That’s why it is so puzzling that the one project where he should have had the greatest insight – his semi-autobiographical “The Fabelmans” – would not feature the most clarity of any of his long list of film projects. That is the case when the movie envelops itself in the examination of cinema but Spielberg seems to get distracted when dealing with family issues.
The reflective tale set in post-World War II written by Spielberg and Tony Kushner revolves around young Sammy Fabelman – played in various ages by Gabriel LaBelle and Mateo Zoryon Francis-Deford – who is introduced to the world of movies when his parents take him to see “The Greatest Show on Earth.” His mother, Mitzi (Michelle Williams), helps Sammy find a way to create his own visual memories when she gives him a camera.
Sammy’s passion for movie making thrills his mother but frustrates his serious-minded father, Burt (Paul Dano), who believes all of the filming is a waste of time and energy. He would prefer his son find a more serious avenue of interest.
This is the part of the film that carries the movie as Spielberg loads up the production with sequences that are reflective of the kind of ingenuity he had to show as a young filmmaker himself. Sammy’s skill with the camera grows as he goes from simply using a camera to document everyday moments to making it a tool to capture and express emotions.
Sometimes the images he collects create joy, especially with Mitzi who is experiencing emotional and psychological issues. At the same time, his films also create pain and discomfort for her.
Constant collision between family angst and cinematic enjoyment pulls Sammy in various directions. But, as if a battle cry from Spielberg himself, Sammy eventually embraces the thing that means the most to him in life.
Spielberg does meander a bit with his messages about the place of cinema in the world especially when Sammy must deal with high school bullying. The fact the focus returns quickly keeps that part of the film on track.
It is the family story that comes across as more of a distraction than the attention holder it should have been. Dano’s performance as father and husband is so colorless that he looks more like a black-and-white character in Spielberg’s Technicolor world. The father is reduced to being little more than a catalyst for moving the family to new locations.
There also seems to be a hesitancy by Spielberg as to how he wants to show what the mother is facing. He dances close to mental issues but then drifts to more of a story about infidelity. The director/writer is so cautious with how the character is to be displayed that there is a fuzziness to the performance.
What ends up being a poorly formulate element of “The Fabelmans” is when it deals with anti-Semitism. The abuse Sammy faces at school because of his religion looks more like a high school training film for how not to act than part of a personal flow to the film.
If Spielberg was trying to add some levity to the movie with the overzealous teen who wants to convert Sammy, it doesn’t play out the way it should because the religious attacks are so forced.
The best thing that happens for Spielberg is that his cinematic senses take over when the movie begins to get mired in the family muck. Every time Sammy turns on his camera it is as if Spielberg has waved his magic wand over the project.
There is an epilogue that is out of place but by that point Spielberg has made a very clear point about how movies can show us the world while at the same time giving us a concise view of ourselves. The fact this is a story that is so close to home for Spielberg shows when it comes to the family elements his approach is a little too cautious.
What is always clear is that Spielberg is saying that everyone is the director of their own life story. How that is told is what makes life so interesting.
Cast: Michelle Williams, Paul Dano, Seth Rogen, Gabriel LaBelle, Judd Hirsch, Sam Rechner.
Director: Steven Spielberg
Rated: PG-13 for violence, language, thematic elements
Running time: 151 minutes.