Starring Gabriel LaBelle, Michelle Williams, Paul Dano and Seth Rogen, The Fabelmans is a semi-autobiographical drama, loosely based on the young life of Steven Spielberg. The movie – directed and co-written by the man himself – follows the story of Sammy Fabelman; a young boy who becomes fascinated by the moving image.
The movie begins in 1952, when Sammy’s parents take their son to the cinema to see his very first film: The Greatest Show on Earth. The experience of seeing characters and ideas brought to life on screen has an overwhelming impact on the boy, and soon Sammy finds himself trying to make his own films at home.
From here he begins developing his skills by producing short, no-budget pictures for his scout group. This eventually leads to bigger and better movies, as he becomes more confident with the camera, and his talent grows.
But although Sammy’s abilities to tell interesting stories turns his hobby into a potential career, things at home aren’t running so smoothly. His parents experience difficulties in their marriage, Sammy’s school life is less than ideal, and he still feels he has much to learn about the industry.
Now, although this movie is a fictionalised account of Steven Spielberg’s early years (which is why the film is called The Fabelmans and not The Spielbergs), The Fabelmans is essentially a retelling of his childhood. The parents in this film – Mitzi and Burt Fabelman – are loosely based on Spielberg’s own mother and father, Leah Adler and Arnold Spielberg, while young Sammy is effectively a version of himself.
The characters and situations are not a carbon copy of every moment Spielberg lived and breathed, but the film reflects his thoughts and feelings growing up. His love for cinema, which led onto him becoming one of the greatest directors of all-time is ever present in the movie, and his desire to tell the story about his parents’ divorce is also a key element.
In fact, the issues surrounding his parents are the biggest focus of this film – more so than his own interest in movies. You see, while The Fabelmans is a tale about a boy and his desire to make pictures, this film is really the story of how this boy’s life became shaped by what was happening behind the scenes.
This makes The Fabelmans a far more interesting story than just a semi-biographical film about Spielberg’s career, because it sidesteps his back-catalogue to show how family life helped him see the world in a whole new light. This is a movie about the thoughts, feelings, and experiences that reside in Spielberg’s head, rather than the work he has accomplished over the years, and that makes for some refreshing viewing.
So, yes, this film is about Spielberg (in a roundabout way), but no, it is not about his films. This isn’t a picture about how Spielberg made Jaws, or how he managed to juggle directing Schindler’s List and Jurassic Park in the same year – a feat which is still astounding – it is about his relationship to his parents, and how that relationship set him on the journey of a lifetime.
Now, because this film is directed by Spielberg, as well as co-written by him (with Tony Kushner on board as the other writer), The Fabelmans feels like a very personal picture. There’s a certain intimacy to the film, which is present throughout, and this helps to draw you in.
Spielberg has a way with the camera that few other directors do, and it is evident in every frame. He understands how to tell a story, how to position it just right, and how to get you invested in what he’s selling.
Even his less successful pictures are expertly handled, and The Fabelmans is no exception. There is something here which draws upon all of Spielberg’s abilities as a storyteller, and it is a very accomplished piece.
Not a financially successful piece it seems, as The Fabelmans has already bombed at the US box-office, but based purely on what’s on the screen, this film still shines. This is a lovingly crafted picture, with a light touch, which tells Spielberg’s story, without becoming self-indulgent.
What works best is the film’s desire to get to the heart of Spielberg, to show his admiration for cinema, and his understanding of how it all ticks. The film is strongest when it is showing the young Sammy making movies, especially when he’s using simple tricks to create impressive special effects.
The film also impresses in the casting department, with Gabriel LaBelle doing a great turn as Sammy, and Michelle Williams being fabulous as Sammy’s mother, Mitzi. Meanwhile, Paul Dano brings a subtlety to the part of Burt Fabelman, while Seth Rogen is very effective as family friend, Bennie.
Where the film struggles a little is in its pace, which is a bit slow, and those looking for some of the huge scenes of spectacle found in Spielberg’s usual pictures will find it missing this time around. As mentioned above, this is an intimate piece, so no flashy effects or jaw-dropping set pieces I’m afraid.
But the important thing is, The Fabelmans works and it works well. It does what it sets out to do, and offers a look at the man behind the camera.
While I don’t believe The Fabelmans is Spielberg’s best picture, and it wouldn’t sit within my personal top five of his films, it is a strong film. Spielberg manages to deliver a movie memoir, that can work as a stand-alone piece, but also act as a rare insight into his fascination with film.
If you wish to check out The Fabelmans for yourself, the movie arrives in UK cinemas on Friday January 27th.
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