Whilst Steven Spielberg is arguably the most famous film director in the world, a name that probably everyone knows, his own early life is perhaps not quite as well known and his new film is a semi autobiographical look at the early and formative years of Sammy. This is the story of the Fabelmans not The Spielberg’s despite the central character being a budding film director although from the start his parents draw him in opposite directions. January 1952 sees Sammy being taken to the cinema for the first time with his parents to see The Greatest Show on Earth and it his father Burt (Paul Dano) a whiz in the world of technology who explains to him in an academic manner how the moving image of film actually works whereas his mother Mitzi (Michelle Williams) herself a former performer who has put that life aside to raise her three children enthuses him about the dreams and excitement of cinema. He’s immediately smitten if not a little frightened also by the films central set piece and endeavours to recreate it with his own train set to the disdain of his father wanting Sammy to take care of his toys and regarding his sons new found interest as little more than a hobby instead wanting him to focus on his school work.
But Sammy’s hobby becomes all-consuming and his films become bigger in ambition, in as much as they can on a pocket money budget and using his friends as a cast but it’s clear he has talent. It his visiting Uncle Boris (Judd Hirsch) a circus performer who clarifies it all for him. Those who have talent must not squander it but must persevere and commit even at the risk of neglecting others. It’s the conflict for every artist and it is eternal. How do you pursue your dreams without hurting others? It’s perhaps seen with his father, a clever tech guy who gets promoted and head hunted by various company’s and moves his family around the country to the detriment of his marriage in one of the films many powerful scenes when Sammy discovers his mother’s burgeoning relationship with his father’s friend and workmate Uncle Benny (Seth Rogen) a fun affable guy in contrast to Burt.
As Sammy gets older, for the main part of the film he is played by Gabriel LaBelle, his film making talent is refined and develops is reflected by the better cameras he get moving from super 8 via Bolex til he finally gets his hands on an Arriflex making a college film that finally wins him respect from the college bully. Whilst The Fablemans is not intended as an autobiography there’s enough in the film that tallies with what we do know about Spielberg’s early life and doesn’t make the mistake of trying to show everything but instead highlights influential moments in Sammy’s development leading up to the moment where he finally meets director John Ford played by fellow director David Lynch in an inspired piece of casting before ending on a visual end shot joke.
Co-written by Spielberg (his first writing credit since A.I.) there’s a lot here to like and is not as sentimental as some of his work is but equally Sammy who experiences divorce (although there’s never any shouted arguments) , bereavement, bullying and anti-semitism seems to cope with it all with little emotional effect on him. Spielberg’s blockbusters Jaws, Indiana Jones and Jurassic Park et al are endlessly re-watchable but The Fabelman’s at 150 minutes it is undoubtedly overlong and quite whether audiences will revisit the film is doubtful. From Spielberg’s assured direction to Michelle Williams performance and with the always great Paul Dano playing against creepy type to several highly effective scenes there’s much to admire here and is almost guaranteed awards come Oscar time
Here’s The Fabelman’s trailer….