Film review: The Fabelmans

A cinematic memoir about a young Steven Spielberg discovering his power behind a camera reveals some home truths.

Jan 05, 2023, updated Jan 05, 2023
Paul Dano, Mateo Zoryon, Francis DeFord and Michelle Williams in 'The Fabelmans'. Photo: Studio Canal

Paul Dano, Mateo Zoryon, Francis DeFord and Michelle Williams in 'The Fabelmans'. Photo: Studio Canal

The trailer sets us up for a saccharine back story in which Sammy Fabelman, who we understand to be the famed director Steven Spielberg, discovers the magic of the silver screen while his doting parents look adoringly on.

Set in the 1960s, Sammy Fabelman (a well-cast Gabriel LaBelle) directs Super 8 train-crash movies in his bedroom and makes war films using his friends as actors. In doing so he starts to connect with the power of the camera to move an audience. This solitary passion suits his outsider nature, particularly after the family moves from Arizona to California where Jews in the ‘60s were less than welcome.

It rolls out predictably with a story that is about as interesting as Sammy’s home movies must have been. About a third of the way in, while you’re quietly pondering why this film has Oscar buzz, it finds a pulse with a brilliant and intensifying performance from Michelle Williams as Sammy’s selfish and artistic mother, Mitzi. It is a role that would have been easy for Williams to overplay – creative and talented, a piano player and free spirit with an appalling 1960s habit of serving meals on disposable plates and plastic cutlery which she scoops up in a paper tablecloth and dumps after dinner.

The family setup is an odd one. Mitzi is married to Burt (Paul Dano), a pioneer in the new world of computers whose best friend is the fun-loving Uncle Bennie (Seth Rogen). When Sammy films them all on a family holiday, he sees something about Mitzi that sets him on the path to growing up. It is another sign of the way in which images on a screen can tell us things about our lives.

The move to California sends Sammy way down the pecking order at school but when he makes a movie of his class friends at the beach the camera seeks out powerful and unintended truths. Confronted by the high school jock, Logan Hall (Sam Rechner) over his portrayal on screen as a golden god – Logan feels unworthy of the role, even if it got his girl back – Sammy tells him he only turns the camera on and films what’s already there. It’s not untrue, but it goes to the heart of a director’s ability to make myths.

This sweet story of artistic discovery culminates in Sammy’s arrival in Hollywood, the city of dreams where Spielberg wrote movie history with monster hits like Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and West Side Story. They are all well-crafted examples of good old-fashioned story telling. Much like this.

The Fabelmans opens in cinemas today.

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