The Fabelmans – movie review

In the conversation around the greatest living movie director, Steven Spielberg is very much in the mix. From his feature debut with Duel, through his trademark films like E.T. and the Indiana Jones series, to his serious works in Schindler’s List and Lincoln, few directors can match his filmography. Now he takes his audience back to where it all began with The Fabelmans, a slightly fictionalised autobiography tracing his early life.

Spielberg is a filmmaker who’s always revelled in the big moments – think the ending of Raiders of the Lost Ark, or the incredibly tense handover scene in Bridge of Spies. But he certainly knows how to deliver in the small moments as well. Who can ever forget the red jacket in Schindler’s List? The Fabelmans is more a celebration of those small moments, both narratively and stylistically. This is a “smaller” Spielberg film; a deeply personal document that blurs the line between the magical and the everyday.

The film mostly takes place in the early 1960s as Sammy Fabelman (Gabriel LaBelle) navigates the dangerous waters of adolescence. His father Burt (Paul Dano) is a computer engineer whose work sees him shifting jobs and cities regularly. His mother Mitzi (Michelle Williams) is artistic. Her dream of being a concert pianist was dashed by marriage and kids. Besides Sammy, the couple have daughters Natalie (Keeley Karsten), Reggie (Julia Butters) and Lisa (Sophia Kopera). The tension between Mitzi’s flights of fancy and Burt’s pragmatism sometimes bring them into conflict, but they seem determined to hold everything together. An early visit to the cinema proves pivotal, and soon the young Sammy is fascinated by the movies. Mitzi allows Sammy to use Burt’s Super 8 movie camera and, somewhat against his better judgment, Burt acquiesces. Soon the young man is filming almost constantly.

Burt’s work leads him to a new job and a move to Phoenix, Arizona – rather to Mitzi’s chagrin at first, though she comes to accept it. Burt insists that the company also hire his friend and colleague Bennie Loewy (Seth Rogen) – who serves as an unofficial “uncle” to the kids. Once in Phoenix, Sam begins to involve his local Boy Scout troop in his films, and experiments with things to make his productions more realistic. While Burt appreciates the technical side of things, he sees filmmaking as a hobby, and pushes Sammy towards more practical pursuits. Ironically however, Sammy’s filming of a family camping trip will prove to be a crucial turning point.

The Fabelmans touches on many of the themes that populate Spielberg’s films – the relationship between fathers and sons; the outsider’s perspective; and the impact of antisemitism. Aside from directly referencing movies like The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, it provides several Easter egg moments for movie buffs. Without trying to be exhaustive, I spotted references to E.T., Saving Private Ryan and Catch Me If You Can, among many others. The film echoes some recent excellent films about the same era, including Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood and Paul Thomas Anderson’s Licorice Pizza. And you don’t have to look hard to spot the influence of Giuseppe Tornatore’s Cinema Paradiso, which shares The Fabelmans’ sense of sepia-tinged nostalgia.

Spielberg collaborated on the script with acclaimed theatre and film writer Tony Kushner (West Side Story). They’ve come up with a script that requires some unpacking. Few things are spelled out explicitly, so the resulting film requires some work from the audience. Which is not to say it’s obtuse, but it does need some audience input to put it all together. The script also cleverly avoids some of the obvious “movies about movies” cliches and instead concentrates on the family dynamic and Sammy’s growth as a person. Janusz Kaminski’s lush cinematography evokes the period, while John Williams’ delicate score (as always) lifts the film. Its real musical highlight however isn’t by Williams – rather it’s a touching rendition of J. S. Bach’s Concerto in D Minor. The piece is used in a really beautiful and telling scene; the type of movie magic that’s become Spielberg’s calling card.

Michelle Williams (Venom) is surely in line for another Oscar nomination for her stunning performance as the complicated Mitzi. Paul Dano (The Batman) doesn’t put a foot wrong as the stolid yin to Willams’ energetic yang. Young Gabriel LaBelle has to do a lot of heavy lifting as Sam and achieves it with assurance.  Seth Rogen (An American Pickle) continues his transformation from comic to dramatic actor in a fine turn as Bennie, while Jeannie Berlin and Judd Hirsch are fabulous in rather splashy cameos.

The Fabelmans might not be the very greatest of Spielberg’s films, but it’s certainly among his most personal. A mix of memoir and, yes, fable, the film will strike a chord with his core audience. It might not have the pyrotechnics of some of his other films, but this portrait of the artist as a young man works on many levels.

David Edwards

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