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Ray Richmond: ‘The Fabelmans’ is no mere heartwarming family saga

Gold Derby 2/6/2023 Ray Richmond
© Universal Pictures


I see how the major Oscar races are falling into place, and in most every scenario the biggest winners are “Everything Everywhere All at Once” and “The Banshees of Inisherin.” What has gotten shortchanged in this equation is a little film called “The Fabelmans,” Steven Spielberg’s oh-so-personal semi-autobiography about his young childhood and adolescence growing up in New Jersey, Arizona and Northern California. It follows Sammy Fabelman (Gabriel LaBelle) as the stand in for Spielberg: a young guy obsessed with (what else?) making movies.

The film co-stars Michelle Williams as Sammy’s mother Mitzi, Paul Dano as his father Burt and Seth Rogen as close family friend Bennie. There’s also a showy supporting role from Judd Hirsch as the grizzled Jewish immigrant Uncle Boris. “The Fabelmans” earned a healthy seven Academy Award nominations, including picture, director (Spielberg), original screenplay (Spielberg and Tony Kushner), lead actress (Williams), supporting actor (Hirsch), original score (the immortal John Williams) and production design (Rick Carter and Karen O’Hara).

SEESteven Spielberg (‘The Fabelmans’) could make Oscar history as oldest Best Director winner

Spielberg has been unusually (for him) energetic and forthcoming in promoting the movie during awards season, and it’s paying off. And yet for all of the attention it’s getting, there is the sense that since the initial excitement over the movie died down, it’s just treading water as the writer-producer-director’s heartwarming little family project that probably won’t win much at the Academy Awards. What’s getting lost in the discussion is the fact “The Fabelmans” is far more than that and is being underestimated and mislabeled. It’s a comparatively earnest and subtle piece of work that lacks the dizzying cleverness of “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” the adrenalin rush of “Elvis” or the giddy darkness of “The Banshees of Inisherin,” so it’s consequently getting lost in the Oscar shuffle.

Allow me the opportunity here to declutter and refocus things a bit, because the movie honestly defies easy characterization.

Here is what “The Fabelmans” is NOT: a sweet coming-of-age saga or stirring childhood memoir. It is instead an incredibly honest, forthright, raw and bittersweet tale about how a teenager who falls in love with filmmaking uses his camera as a force field against the world to keep his increasingly dysfunctional family’s implosion at arm’s length. That teenager is of course Spielberg himself, and the growing tension between his parents was real, ultimately driving apart his real-life mother Leah Adler and father Arnold Spielberg.

SEE2023 Oscars: ‘The Fabelmans’ continues Steven Spielberg’s historic Best Picture run

It’s been speculated that Arnold’s death in 2020 at 103 finally spurred Spielberg to push forward with facing down his familial demons by making the film despite the inconvenience of shooting during COVID. In reality, the filmmaker was only 19 when his parents divorced in 1966. That painful chapter has obviously stayed with Spielberg all these years and made it necessary for him to finally address it in the best way he knows how: on a big screen.

In “The Fabelmans,” the audience is treated to the slow-burning trauma of Mitzi’s and Burt’s marriage coming unraveled, one thread at a time. The growing tension between them is circumvented by young Sammy’s obsessive focus on making home movies, as if his shooting will somehow block out what’s plainly visible right in front of him. The most heart-rending moment in the film occurs when Sammy’s camera captures what his eyes have purposefully missed: the playful interaction and tenderness developing on the edges of his viewfinder between Mitzi and best friend Bennie. When confronted with the evidence, Mitzi is devastated but stoic, and the issues in Sammy’s parents’ marriage thereafter grow much more distinct.

SEERay Richmond: With ‘The Fabelmans,’ Steven Spielberg gives us a rare glimpse inside his soul

The last third of the movie plays out like an inevitable march toward a cliff and, as such, is guided by much sharper and darker edges than we’d expect from the director of “E.T.” What looks like “Leave It to Beaver” on the surface is really much harsher, and my suspicion is that audiences weren’t necessarily expecting that. It’s possible they came in anticipating utter wholesome and endearing and instead got a big blast of reality they weren’t entirely ready for. It extends to Williams’s portrayal of Mitzi as enigmatic, complicated and impulsive, which we imagine was not unlike the way Leah Adler herself was.

What’s obvious in watching “The Fabelmans” is that Spielberg wasn’t interested in sugar-coating anything, and doesn’t. And the film he made has much more going on than advertised. Also, the “semi-autobiographical” tag doesn’t necessarily help the filmmaker in this case, as it leaves the impression that it’s a mere rehash of how he went from Super 8 to Panavision when the larger story is really so much richer and more complex.

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