What a time to be a film fan! Just from UK releases in January, you could easily arrange a sumptuous triple-feature of great movies about movies. Damien Chazelle’s Babylon (set mostly in the 20s and 30s) would come first, Sam Mendes’ Empire of Light (80s) would be last, and Steven Spielberg’s The Fabelmans (50s/60s) would sit in the middle. Babylon even concludes when The Fabelmans begins: 1952.
On 10 January that year, parents Mitzi (Michelle Williams) and Burt (Paul Dano) take their eldest son Sam (Mateo Zoryan) to see The Greatest Show on Earth at the cinema. ‘Movies are dreams,’ Mitzi says, calming a child nervous about entering this new, dark space. Sam becomes transfixed by the movie’s train sequence, which later crashes into his dreams – his face tinted green like the somnambulant viridescence of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo.
It’s the first cinematic domino in the lifelong passion of a protagonist that is, everyone knows, a surrogate for Spielberg. The man who, with George Lucas, restored Tinseltown to financial glory in the 70s and became the most influential director in modern Hollywood.
(L-R) Paul Dano, Mateo Zoryan and Michelle Williams as Burt, Sam and Mitzi Fabelman. Photo: eOne
This semi-autobiographical effort flows in waves of tangible pleasures. It's a coming-of-age story, a family drama, and a wonderful examination of youthful creativity. And without suffering the cliches of many artist biopics, which artificially fuse their lives with their art, The Fabelmans continues and implicitly explains common themes in Spielberg's films: chiefly about family, divorce, and fatherhood (or lack thereof).
With regular co-writer Tony Kushner (West Side Story), Spielberg traces the history of this Jewish family of six. They’re led by an overly rational and inventive father, who goes where the money is: moving from New Jersey to Phoenix, Arizona, before settling in Northern California. Dano plays Burt with his usual introverted awkwardness, which is strange but familiar in a more paternal character.
Mitzi is more anxious but she's outspoken, a mother whose nerves jangle in every scene. Williams overperforms slightly, but it's still an impassioned performance that laces intense love with overwhelming anxiety. It’s no wonder Mitzi takes solace in Burt’s best friend and colleague Benny – played by Seth Rogen with surprising dramatic flair, much like his role in Steve Jobs. That familial fun with Benny soon turns into an extramarital affair.
The teenage Sam (delicately, brilliantly played by Gabriel LaBelle) figures this out when editing a home movie, giving way to a fascinating, intuitive interplay of who knows and who doesn’t.
Seth Rogen as Benny. Photo: eOne
Like a lot of creative people, especially in adolescence, Sam’s only way of processing and articulating his feelings is through fiction. He's driven by a need for control, hard to find when his family is fracturing around him. During a period in which he gives up his passion, Sam retreats into silence – exacerbated by suppressive, antisemitic bullying in high school. You know this kid will grow into the most famous director of all time, yet this chasm feels inescapable. Making movies not only provides an outlet for his feelings, but also solidifies his own identity via Bolex and Arriflex cameras.
The film also explores the complex psychological motivations behind that kind of creativity, and the unpredictable reactions it can provoke. Even more troubling for Sam is the disparities between reality and fiction – perhaps the fear of the former is part of why Spielberg waited so long to make it.
The Fabelmans is a beautiful oddity in a long, industrial career. It’s smaller than the rest: there are no aliens, the adventures are largely mundane, and the only wars are those constructed by Sam for his scout troop. But the drama looks and feels like a blockbuster, despite the tightness of its subject – owing largely to Janusz Kaminski’s restrained yet absorbing cinematography, as riveting as his work on Lincoln and Bridge of Spies.
This is a warm, spirited meditation – bolstered by a hilarious cameo of David Lynch as John Ford, giving Sam filmmaking advice. Is Spielberg imparting something similar with The Fabelmans?
The Fabelmans will in UK cinemas on Friday 27 January.
|What||The Fabelmans review|
27 Jan 23 – 27 Jan 24, IN CINEMAS
|Price||£determined by cinemas|
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