THE FABELMANS film review

An intimate portrait of an ultimately underwhelming quasi autobiographical story. Steven Spielberg’s The Fabelmans looks gorgeous and delivers a performative dimension with heart, but the story, largely inspired by his own life, struggles to capture the magic in which it so eagerly wants to wrap audiences. Tony Kushner’s screenplay, with story by Spielberg, starts and finishes well; however, the middle (or development stage) lacks focus and stakes, and even ventures into needless satire. If audiences are seeking a film about the transformative power of filmmaking and following one’s passion–despite the odds–then they will be better off with the Italian cinematic masterpiece Cinema Paradiso. This film is best experienced on the big screen because of the beautifully crafted cinematography, so if you plan to see it, do not wait for it to hit Peacock or Amazon Prime to view at home. Clearly this is the most personal motion picture from the king of the box office form the late mid 1970s to mid 1990s, but hopefully now that he has made his fictionalized autobiographical picture, he will get back to thrilling and entertaining audiences with pictures that are talked about decades later.

Young Sammy Fabelman (Gabriel LaBelle) falls in love with movies after his parents take him to see The Greatest Show on Earth. Armed with a camera, Sammy starts to make his own films at home, much to the delight of his supportive mother. But a dark family secret threatens his idyllic family.

While The Fabelmans attempts to inspire audiences through its central character of Sammy’s journey, audiences may find it difficult to connect with a central character from an upper middle, if not, upper class family that experiences fewer obstacles to the pursuance of art than does a typical working class individual. Why is this important? Because the film focuses on Sammy’s struggles (primarily during his teenage years). While Sammy certainly experiences emotional and psychological struggles, it’s difficult for audiences to connect with a central character that has far fewer financial and time obstacles than most people experience when pursuing passions. It’s far easier to pursue art as a career when sufficient financial backing is present. It’s characters that have to scrimp, save, and balance making a living while pursuing art (or other less conventional passions) that impact audiences most.

Michelle Williams (Mitzy, Sammy’s mom) delivers an outstanding performance! Moreover, Gabrielle LaBelle (Sammy), and the rest of the cast all display exceptional chemistry and dimension. There is a surprising cameo at the end of the film that is the icing on the cake of this exemplary cast. From the cast to the characters themselves, audiences will be impressed by the authenticity of the Fabelman family. Unfortunately, that same authenticity is not reflected in all the ancillary characters. Even in Spielberg’s big blockbuster films like Jaws, ET, and Jurassic Park, the cast is always excellent! That’s likely because each of the characters feels like an everyman, someone that could be you or someone in your life.

A closer look at the plot reveals a lack of a substantive goal(s) for Sammy. Fortunately, his mother Mitzy has a goal, but I won’t get into spoilers. Kushner’s screenplay neglects to provide Sammy’s outside/action story with high stakes. He’s never at risk of losing anything–personally–anyway. Therefore, he’s always in a safe position. One may be able to attempt an argument on losing his family, but that is more relational than an actual goal to achieve or fail to achieve. Dealing with life or a day in the life of are NOT plots nor goals. Aside from remaining alive, there is nothing measurable to gain or lose. For example, his goal could be to complete a particular picture or to land a job with a studio, but neither are that to which all the scenes point. Much like with many other movies and films as of late, this one isn’t written well. Lots of ideas, some of which are refreshing, but not woven together in a compelling narrative.

In terms of the relationship between Sammy and his camera, and Sammy and his family, I appreciate the film’s commentary on how a true artist experiences great pressure from family and friends as they work on their art. It can mean, making self-centered decisions that support the creation of art versus being emotionally or physically available to family and friends. Furthermore, the film teaches us that the camera itself never lies–it captures that which is placed in front of it–but it’s the editing (or montage) process that can selectively tell a particular story from the collection of raw footage. Sometimes the camera shows us things that we are afraid to confront otherwise.

Undoubtedly, there will be critics and general audiences that praise the film for being Spielberg’s most personal. And it is–but–therein lies part of the problem with the storytelling. A filmmaker directing a film that is ostensibly about their life demonstrates a huge ego trip. It also means everything that is dramatized is highly subjective, giving way to feelings weighing greater than facts. When a motion picture is biographical in nature (even when it’s a fictionalized account), audiences want to know how it really happened.

The middle of the film, specifically when Sammy’s Jewish family is relocated from their beloved Arizona to northern California, is plagued with caricatures of both school bullies and Christians. Due to the subjective nature of this narrative, one cannot help but wonder if the bullies were exaggerated and if the ridiculous level of cult-like fanaticism of his Christian girlfriend were misrepresented and mischaracterized for dramatic purposes. If Spielberg and Kushner were making fun of any other faith group, it would be seen as disrespectful. But they will get a pass because in Hollywood, it’s perfectly acceptable to make fun of members of the Christian community–but–completely unacceptable to stereotype or satire any other faith group or subset of the general population. If it’s evaluated as in poor taste to treat other groups with disrespect, then it should be viewed the same way here. Spielberg and Kushner could have found more tasteful ways to highlight the religious conflict in Sammy and his girlfriend’s relationship, and methods that were good-natured teasing or fun, but it was clearly more of an importance to show the girlfriend as a fanatic.

The opening sequences and scenes paired with the final scene of the film are thoughtfully crafted to transport audiences to a world of awe and wonder, and for those scenes, I applaud the film. Unfortunately, the film gets bogged down with a convoluted mess of ideas in the middle that do not add to the experience of the film, or send constructive messages to the audience.

Ryan teaches Film Studies and Screenwriting at the University of Tampa and is a member of the Critics Association of Central Florida. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter. If you’re ever in Tampa or Orlando, feel free to catch a movie with him.

Follow him on Twitter: RLTerry1

“I, Tonya” film review

Of skates and class. Margot Robbie stars as the first US woman to successfully land a triple axel…also the most infamous woman in the history of US Figure Skating in what is likely one of the most difficult and controversial biographical films ever produced. Tonya Harding is back in the headlines and on TV, and even on the ice if you caught last night’s 2-hour Truth and Lies special on ABC. While most Olympiad names are forgotten within a short amount of time, Harding and Nancy Kerrigan’s names will always have notoriety through the years. Nearly 25 years later, we find ourselves still talking about Tonya Harding. The biopic I, Tonya directed by Craig Gillespie and written by Steven Rogers provides audiences with an unapologetic glimpse into Harding’s early life through “the incident.” It is unlike any biographical film that I have ever seen before. Most often, biopics slant toward making the central character more likable than perhaps they were in real life. This film approaches Harding from the perspective of not shying away from her foul-mouthed, inability to take responsibility, violent temper; instead, showing us an authentic Harding who struggled through life to break the chains of classless poverty and emerge onto the scene as a professional figure skating record-setting champion. While this movie does not set out to prove what really happened, it does show what is likely to have happened. Although “the incident” is what everyone remembers, this movie shows a struggling young person attempting to change but thwarted at every angle by hearing that she cannot because she isn’t what America is looking for and has no class. But why couldn’t it have been just about the skating???

Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie) took to ice like a fish takes to water. She was an ice skating prodigy from the soft age of four when she took her first lesson from coach Diane Rawlinson (Julianne Nicholson). Growing up poor, she faced obstacle at every triple toe loop. From mental and physical abuse to sexual abuse, she weathered it all. Her mother LaVona (Allison Janney) was a monster of a woman who pushed and pushed in order to toughen “soft” Tonya. Even hot-tempered Tonya found love–albeit brief–with Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan). The mental and physical abuse continued and only worsened after she set the world record for being the first US woman to successfully land a triple axel in 1991. But she would come in fourth in the 1992 Olympics. She fell into despair after that crushing defeat. When the US Figure Skating association gives Harding a second chance at the 1994 Winter Olympics, all seems like it is finally going her way, and she would finally experience the success she dreamt of her entire life, until “the incident.” Of course, as we all know, she went on to become a national punchline, material for comedians and sitcoms, and the most well-known name in the US after Bill Clinton.

Even though crime and ice skating are central elements in this film, it is truly a commentary on class and abuse. From the moment the movie opens with Harding and her mother smoking a cigarette at the ice rink in Harding’s hometown of Portland juxtaposing them against the pretty and proper coach with her students, we know that we are about to watch a story of class warfare. All Harding wanted was to excel at the sport she was naturally gifted at. Only one small problem: society and the figure skating association made it incredibly difficult–if not nearly impossible–for Tonya Harding to break free of her roots in classless poverty. But don’t allow the beginning of the film fool you into thinking she Harding is a kind soul who finds herself the underdog, she has a volatile temper and foul mouth that constantly gets her into trouble during practice and in competition. This film is an underdog story, but quite the unconventional one. Because we already know going in that she went from the first woman to land a triple axel, national champion to disgraced skater and unsuccessful boxer. For all its various plot points, the common theme throughout the movie is whether or not to allow your financial station in life to determine your behavior on and off the ice. Class has little to do with money, but rather, is a state of mind and demeanor. Perhaps we have a better idea of why Tonya behaved the way she did. The film never excuses her behavior or indirect knowledge (after the fact) of what her husband mastermind, but peels back the 24-hr 1990s news coverage in order to empathize and understand what made Tonya tick.

Is it possible for a square peg to fit into a round hole? Certainly, the life of a figure skater, especially one who represents the US on the global stage, is incredibly structured, polished, and constructed in such a way that the skater always looks his or her best to the public–a facade if you will. But, the once bright career of Harding serves as evidence that if you don’t come from the right family, have the right costume (or clothes), or speak eloquently, then the arena has no place for you. Perhaps that is why Harding still has fans despite her infamy. Although according to the film, she could have spoken up a lot sooner to help the investigation along instead of being fully consumed by having to make the 1994 Olympic team and indirectly covering for her ex-husband, she was dealt a dirty hand by judges and rivals who felt she just didn’t belong with them; and America generally liked an underdog. Unfortunately, this underdog got caught up in a scandal the followed a long history of irreverent behavior. The media coverage certainly did not help Harding’s case any. With the availability of CNN’s 24-hour news coverage, birthed out of the Gulf War now able to capture everything in order to have stories constantly grabbing audience attention, the film paints a picture that the media treated her unfairly and convicted her before the court’s decision to prohibit her from ever competing or coaching again, and the subsequent stripping of titles. Just some food for thought.

The topic of abuse is not shied away from in this film. We witness Tonya suffering from the brutal tongue of her mother, as well as constant physical abuse. Because there lacked the number of social programs for the protection of children and teenagers we have today, and schools were not as in tuned to abuse at home, she had little choice but to deal. Eventually, she would succumb to lashing out in similar ways to what which she experienced every day growing up in that house–house, not home. Her mother attempts to rationalize and excise her behavior because she tells Tonya that fear and anger will drive her to be a champion, but that doesn’t change the lasting affect the lifelong abuse had upon Tonya. It’s entirely possible that Tonya sought out Jeff because she was used ot abuse and felt that she needed it. Talk about warped.

The quality of this biopic is incredible! I absolutely loved the “interview” footage in the 4:3  format whereas the main narrative was in 16:9. Felt like we were watching actual news coverage in 1998. At first, I thought we were, but then I recognized Margot Robbie behind the exquisite makeup and costuming job. It has such an organic–no pretense–feel to the film. Robbie and her costars had me fully convinced that they were their respective characters. All around, the commitment to character was outstanding. Robbie commented in an interview that she studied footage of Harding for over a year, and it shows brilliantly! When the actual footage rolls at the end of the film, it is incredibly difficult to tell the real Tonya from her screen counterpart. Robbie’s monologue in front of the mirror is certainly one for the record books because of just how authentic and powerful it is. The production design and cinematography create a time machine; you will feel as though you have been whisked back 20-30 years throughout the film. Authenticity in spades. Director Craig Gillespie should be immensely proud of the film he crafted! Excellent writing, acting, technical elements. This biographic motion picture has it all. And will certainly get you to once again talk about Tonya Harding.

Highly recommend for those who enjoy controversial biographical films. The high profile critics are not exaggerating when referring to it as one of, if not the, best film of the year. There is so much to like, and for some, hate about this film. Whether you believe her to be criminal or not, there is no doubt that you will be blown away by the quality of this motion picture.