In The Fabelmans, Steven Spielberg doffs his hat to the transformative powers of cinema while patting himself on his back. The Hollywood titan famously dropped out of college to work at one of America’s leading studios at the ridiculously young age of 23. In the heavily autobiographical The Fablemans, which Spielberg has co-written with long-time collaborator Tony Kushner, the filmmaker presents a fictional version of the family that inspired him to create his unique brand of believably escapist cinema.
In 1952, Sammy is taken to watch his first ever film in a theatre – Cecil B DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth, aptly enough. The movie’s elaborate stunts appeal to Sammy’s mechanical brain. Soon enough, he’s trying to replicate one of the film’s key sequences. When his mother suggests that he can simulate the stunt just once and film it with a hand-cranked camera, Sammy learns one of the basic tenets of the seventh art: in cinema, you can stage an action and repeat it over and over again.
Other principles of cinema accompany Sammy’s coming-of-age experience, which lasts until 1964. Directors can pick and choose aspects of reality. Music can transform a moment. Films reveal but conceal too – the camera can document but can also discreetly look away. As a character tells Sammy (Gabriel LaBelle), this is our secret, unless you choose to make a movie about it.
The home videos get more elaborate even as Sammy’s life gets more complicated. Elements of the relationship between his father Burt (Paul Dano), mother Mitzi (Michelle Williams) and Burt’s colleague Bennie (Seth Rogen) cast a shadow on Sammy’s projects, as does the anti-Semitism he faces in his teenage years. Mitzi, who defends her son’s ambition despite her own thwarted dreams, emerges as a key influence on Sammy.
Movies are dreams that you will never forget, Mitzi tells Sammy. Michelle Williams plays Mitzi like a repressed heroine from 1950s Hollywood melodramas, her performative perkiness barely hiding her anguish. Williams has been nominated for a best actress Oscar for The Fabelmans, but the more interesting character is Burt, modelled on Spielberg’s pioneering electrical engineer father Arnold Spielberg and played with dexterous subtlety by Paul Dano.
Julia Butters, Keeley Karsten and Sophia Kopera, as Sammy’s sisters, too turn out sharp performances. David Lynch has a hilarious cameo as the legendary director John Ford.
The Fabelmans revisits one of Spielberg’s abiding themes – the impact of the break-up of a family on children. The movie testifies to the power of cinema to act as both security blanket and escape route. But the self-analysis, irony and emotional distance that might have made The Fabelmans less anodyne is missing.
Unlike other filmmakers who have mined their backyards for stories without sparing themselves –from Woody Allen to Noah Baumbach – Spielberg has crafted a love letter to his younger self. The suggestion that Sammy suffers for his art is quashed by his precocious talent. Already, even before he sets foot on a studio lot, Sammy is well on his way to becoming a money-spinning and Oscar-winning director, the movie immodestly suggests. (Reality has matched the fiction, with The Fabelmans bagging an unearned seven nominations.)
Often indulgent like Mitzi, as selective in its memory of pain as Sammy is about what he commits to film, and light in spirit despite its heavy subject matter, the 151-minute film is a double-weave of revelation and deception. It’s personal this time, but in keeping with Spielberg’s cinema, professional too.