Sammy (Mateo Zoryan Francis-DeFord) is the kind of boy who is easy to miss. Quiet, polite and obedient, he scores mediocre grades and shows no interest in sports. His father, Burt (Paul Dano), a mild-mannered nerd, prods him to learn algebra. It leaves no impact on him. Sammy can fit into most worlds, meld into most backgrounds. That’s because he hasn’t found his world. That changes when he discovers cinema and uses a camera. He isn’t ordinary anymore – Sammy is the boy with a movie camera.
With The Fabelmans, Steven Spielberg comes home in more ways than one: it’s a partly autobiographical coming-of-age drama about his literal and figurative homes, family and movies. A story about a guy wanting to tell stories – you could even call it The Fableman. The film’s initial segment elicits two crucial questions: What makes us love something, and what makes us stay with it? Sammy’s childhood opens up an answer that’s intuitive yet paradoxical: control.
Born to an ace engineer soaring in the computer science field, Sammy and his family often change states to accommodate Burt’s ambition. They move from New Jersey to Arizona to California, following his rise from the Radio Corporation of America to GE to IBM. The family resents the frequent relocations, including Sammy, who can’t control his own story. As he grows up (Gabriel LaBelle plays the teenaged version), Sammy notices his parents’ lack of control, too. Because they aren’t a duo as much as a trio: Burt, his wife Mitzi (Michelle Williams) and his best friend Bennie (Seth Rogen). Sammy hasn’t grown up enough to understand that his mother may hear Burt, but she listens to Bennie – she smiles at her husband but laughs with his best friend.
Until one day he does. Through an unlikely ally: the camera. His family and Uncle Bennie go on a camping trip. Burt encourages him to make a short film on it to cheer up Mitzi who has recently lost her mother. While assembling the footage, the camera tells him everything: Mitzi and Bennie taking a walk, she leaning on his shoulder, the quiet smile, the warm embrace. The camera doesn’t lie; the camera tells him to grow up. It’s an inspired sequence – a boy becoming a man at the speed of 24 frames per second.
The portions depicting his relationship with cinema almost unfold as an origin story of a filmmaking superhero, hiding the extraordinary in ordinary. We don’t get a White Light moment, where the boy finds his Voice or Calling. Instead we watch a slow-brewing eternal romance. Sammy may disappear among his friends, but on shooting locations he’s in absolute control. Sammy may shun science, but he engineers an ingenious way to capture guns firing bullets: he punctures the celluloid strip.
The drama also hints at the impact of art on life. Sammy is so taken in by the medium that it’s no longer a part of his life, but life itself. Burt keeps telling Sammy that filmmaking is his “hobby”, that when he becomes an adult he must “make something real, not imaginary”. But movies seem more real to Sammy – if it’s not on screen it doesn’t make sense. He even confronts through cinema. When Mitzi asks him about his foul mood, he switches on the uncut version of the camping trip and leaves the room. Later, his mother’s brother, Uncle Boris (Judd Hirsch), who used to work on film sets, tells him, “Art will tear your heart out and leave you lonely.”
Boris’s comment on the conflict between life and art turns prophetic, as it perfectly applies to this film. Because when The Fabelmans moves away from the aspiring filmmaker to domestic discord – from Arizona to California – it starts to lose focus and flair. The main problem? A lack of compelling conflict. I’m sure the young Spielberg must have felt the weight of his parents’ separation, but it doesn’t materialise with poignant presence on screen. First, there isn’t much of a story here – or at least not examined and interrogated by the filmmaker in enough detail. We get a standard macro picture of an inherently mismatched couple: the romantic and the engineer, the piano and the data, the stories and the science. But even in their worst moments, they care for each other. They’re just normal decent people – and such kinds don’t have enough to hold your interest. It’s the filmmaking equivalent of a beautiful shut door: you can admire it but not enter through it.
The segment centred on Sammy in a Californian school is even more bland. Again, nothing you haven’t seen before: a misfit kid, bullying classmates, confused adolescence. Sure, Sammy endures horrific antisemitic slurs, but it’s at best a surface-level detail. Worse, these bits drag as Sammy’s relationship with cinema is absent here – he stops filming to protest the Mitzi-Bennie affair.
There are two films competing for attention here: Sammy’s love for cinema and the slow disintegration of his family. After a point, they don’t meld as much as stand out as distinct chapters. Besides, for a movie whose first meaningful sequence is set inside a movie theatre, it builds up an expectation of a story that curiously remains unfulfilled. Barring a few exceptional scenes (mentioned in the above paragraphs), we don’t get a proper sense of Sammy’s evolving relationship with cinema. Right till the end, for instance, I had no idea about his favourite filmmaker. (John Ford.) What were his favourite movies – what did they do to him? We watch an impressive war drama made by Sammy in school but don’t get any indication of its length. (I looked up its runtime on Wikipedia.) These seemingly small details matter, and their absence hurts the film.
But the bigger problem here is the protagonist himself. It’s one thing to be a great filmmaker; it’s quite the other to be a compelling character. I won’t waste your time talking about the former, but Sammy without his camera – much like his parents and a portion of this film – is insipid. While analysing my thoughts on the movie, I pondered its poignant moments. Would Sammy discovering his mother’s affair through his camera have the same effect on me if, say, he were totally fictional and not based on a legendary director? I have my doubts.
I don’t begrudge The Fabelmans for benefitting from Spielberg’s heft. He’s made enough excellent films to deserve this. But a movie must be solid on its own, too, to keep you hooked. The Fabelmans isn’t, and its Best Picture nomination tells you more about the Academy Awards and less about this film. This movie even tells you what’s wrong with it – via a line that comes from another legendary director, Ford. He says that a frame is interesting if its horizon is either on the top or on the bottom; if it’s in the centre, then the movie becomes “boring as shit”. Spielberg is way too gifted to make anything “boring as shit”, but I’ve learnt much more about the man when he’s telling someone else’s stories as opposed to his own.