Steven Spielberg tackles his autobiography with this story of his youth and adolescence, discovering his love of film while coping with his parents’ untenable marriage. As Spielberg’s stand-in, Sam Fabelman, Gabrielle LaBelle is a disappointingly empty vessel, lacking the charisma or screen presence to carry us through this tale. Michelle Williams leaves a much bigger impression with her performance as Sam/Spielberg’s mother, a carefree artist who carries on a secret love for her husband’s best friend (played by Seth Rogen). The rest of the cast are adequate, if not a little off-kilter, with Paul Dano playing Spielberg’s oddly distant but undeniably kind father and Chloe East playing a comical first love interest. Judd Hirsch and David Lynch make brief but unforgettable appearances, completely owning the film’s two finest sequences.
The Fabelman’s works best for me when it’s about Spielberg and filmmaking. There are joyful scenes recounting the young filmmaker’s rough-and-tumble productions with his Boy Scout troop, covering his sisters in toilet paper to play mummies, and crashing his toy train to recreate a famous scene in The Greatest Show on Earth. But all that takes a slight second-seat to the story of his parents, which isn’t ever as tense or unpredictable as it should be. I understand divorce tears families apart, but the divorce in The Fabelmans plays out like perhaps the nicest one in history, in which all parties continue to love and respect each other. Maybe it’s just me, but I never felt the love within this family, and I didn’t feel like their divorce was as earth-shattering as it’s perhaps meant to feel.
Oscar Nominations: Best Film, Director, Actress (Williams), Supporting Actor (Hirsch), Score (John Williams), Original Screenplay (Spielberg and Tony Kushner), Production Design