Flix at :48: 'The Fabelmans': a sweet family drama that turns saccharine
Sometimes Hollywood figures become so big, their own lives and personalities eclipse their actual work on screen....and director Steven Spielberg ("West Side Story", 2021) might be turning into one of those people.
Spielberg's new film, "The Fabelmans", is a heartfelt family drama based on Spielberg's childhood in the 1950s and 60s living in New Jersey, Arizona, and Northern California.
As the eldest child in a loving Jewish family, the fictionalized role of Spielberg is the center of the ups, downs, and rites of passage in growing up. This leading role is played with spirited innocence by Gabriel LaBelle (most recently seen in the "American Gigolo" series on Showtime). But in addition to the charming coming-of-age layer of "The Fabelmans", the young boy's experimentation with amateur filmmaking offers unexpected insights as well.
This film has a richness of intimate cinematography showing clear beams of light cutting through the darkness at almost every angle. All of that visually, thoughtful composition captures the excitement and transformative power of cinema.
The sensitive screenplay, co-written by Spielberg and Tony Kushner ("Lincoln", 2012) shows how filmmaking (even on a tiny meager scale) can create real-life heroes, can touch hearts, and can even reveal damaging secrets.
Nobody tries too hard in this film, and none of the performances could be called over-acting. Michelle Williams' ("The Greatest Showman", 2017) performance is the most noteworthy as an artistic free spirit with a heart of patience.
But with "The Fabelmans" working so hard to remain optimistic and sweet, that sweetness starts to feel saccharine in the second half of its 2 hour 31 minute run-time. And with that saccharine mood being so persistent, the whole film leans into self-indulgence.
It's great to see a film that feels so personal for its director and one that has so much authenticity in its props, locations, and set decorations. (The small 8 mm and 16 mm cameras used in the film had real film inside them, and actor Gabriel LaBelle was taught how to use the cameras, editing machines, and film projectors prior to shooting.)
It just didn't need to be so delightedly plucky in its longer-than-usual time frame. Because of that pluckiness, it's difficult to take "The Fabelmans" seriously or feel swept away in its world. And because of that pluckiness, this film is not amazing....but it's good.
"The Fabelmans" has come to theaters in a year when other directors are also releasing films inspired by personal childhoods including James Gray (with "Armageddon Time"), Charlotte Wells (with "Aftersun"), and Richard Linklater (with "Apollo 10½: A Space Age Childhood"). Maybe with this ardent release from Spielberg, more directors will follow suit with personal, crowd-pleasing, family stories.
And with so much collective cultural focus on the trends of social injustice and online outrage right now, it's nice to have a film like this that will make people smile.