In the wake of the pandemic, several film directors seem to be have been inspired to take a closer look at at their own roots. Already this year we’ve had Sam Mendes’s Empire of Light, Alejandro G Innarutu’s Bardo and James Gray’s Armageddon Time – though good luck tracking down any cinema or streaming service showing the latter.
Now comes the turn of Steven Spielberg, arguably one of our greatest living directors, who is clearly looking to settle some old ghosts with The Fabelmans. The film is preceded by a short clip featuring an avuncular-looking Spielberg, humbly thanking the audience for coming to the cinema to see his latest offering. What we are about to watch, he tells us, is his most personal film ever.
It begins in 1952, when the young Sam Fabelman (Mateo Zoreyan) goes to his very first picture show along with his parents, Burt (Paul Dano), a computer programmer, and Mitzi (Michelle Williams), a talented pianist. Sam is initially apprehensive about the upcoming experience – he’s heard terrible things! – but is transfixed by Cecil B DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth, particularly an extended sequence that depicts an epic train crash. That Christmas, Sam is given a lovely toy train set and he cannot stop himself from attempting to recreate what he saw in the movie and, inevitably, capturing it on film.
Time rolls on, and a teenage Sam (Gabrielle LaBelle) is living in Arizona, where Burt has gone for work. He’s still obsessively making amateur movies, aided by his willing schoolmates (including the famous World War 2 on a budget epic Escape to Nowhere) and thinks nothing of the fact that Burt’s friend, ‘Uncle’ Bennie (Seth Rogan), is a constant presence in the family’s life. It’s only when he is editing a film about a recent family camping trip that the camera reveals something he has previously had no inkling of…
The Fabelmans is essentially a family drama, but one that encompasses some weighty topics: mental health issues, the prevalence of anti-semitism and the expectations that parents can sometimes place on their children. Above all hovers the love of cinema, the almost magical ability it has to transform a viewer’s world, to allow them to escape from reality into a variety of uncharted realms. This is a warm and affectionate study of the director’s beginnings and, if it occasionally ventures perilously close to schmaltz, Spielberg is deft enough to repeatedly it snatch back from the abyss. The world he creates here is utterly believable.
There’s plenty to enjoy. I love the brief appearance by Judd Hirsch as all-round force of nature, Uncle Boris – a former silent movie actor, who recognises the nascent director lurking inside Sam and calls him to do something about it. There’s a beautifully nuanced performance from the ever-impressive Williams as a woman who has sacrificed her own creative ambitions to the demands of her family and is suffering because of it, and there’s a delicious, foul-mouthed cameo from (of all people) David Lynch. Throw in Janusz Kaminski’s gorgeous cinematography and legendary composer John Williams’ music, and you’ve got something a little bit special.
And while The Fabelmans is not quite the five-star masterpiece that so many critics have declared it to be, it’s nonetheless a fascinating look at the filmmaker’s roots and one that never loses momentum throughout its duration.
So don’t wait for streaming. See it where it belongs, and Steven will thank you in person.