Director – Steven Spielberg – 2022 – US – Cert. 12a – 151m
The life and times of a young boy and amateur US movie maker whose extended family harbours an unexpected secret – out in UK cinemas on Friday, January 27th
Throughout his career, Spielberg has continued to surprise. He’s made big blockbusters which seem, very often, to be about the intimacies of family relationships. Perhaps it was inevitable that, sooner or later, he would make something like The Fabelmans.
Orson Welles once said that Hollywood was the best train set a boy could have to play with. Presented with a train set, young Sammy Fabelman (Mateo Zoryan Francis-DeFord) plays with it by staging train crashes, about which behaviour his brilliant, scientific nerd father Burt (Paul Dano) is less than pleased.
However, his mother Mitzy (Michelle Williams), after some thought, realises that her son need to see the trains crash over and over again, so secretly allows him to stage a crash and film it with the family’s Super 8 home movie camera to enable his required repeat viewing. This kindles within the boy a desire to make his own movies, and soon he’s enlisting his family, friends and neighbours in these enterprises. Later, as a teenager, Sammy is played by the older Gabriel LaBelle.
The film is Sammy’s story and while other character’s loom large – his two sisters his father, his mother, his live-in uncle – the whole thing is told from Sammy’s point of view. Based on a screenplay by Spielberg and playwright Tony Kushner (who previously collaborated with the director on Munich, 2005; Lincoln, 2012; and West Side Story, 2021), the film is a reimagining of Spielberg’s early life. Kushner has been talking with Spielberg about this period of the director’s life on and off for some 15 years, and all that research eventually coalesced into the screenplay.
It’s not exactly biography – or autobiography – and the names of the characters are invented for the film, but there’s a lot in there based on the director’s childhood and teenage years, starting with a family outing to see The Greatest Show On Earth (Cecil B. DeMille, 1952) and ending with an impromptu visit to the office of legendary director John Ford (an extraordinary turn by equally legendary director David Lynch).
Sammy’s dad Burt is something of a high flier in the corporate world, a technician who revolutionises data storage systems, for first RCA and later General Electric. His colleague and assistant, known as Uncle Bennie (Seth Rogen) to the kids, lives with the family in their home, one of those weird living arrangements that, as kids who know your own family and assume that everyone else’s is the same, you just accept. His mum, a gifted piano player, is the artistic one in a time when it was largely accepted that women stayed home and raised families rather than went out and pursued any sort of career.
While dad is at ease with the role of breadwinner and immersed in his corporate challenges, mum seems constantly torn between her role as mum and a yearning for something beyond. At one point, she piles the kids into a car and they go chasing tornadoes. At one point, there is a memorable visit from Uncle Boris (Judd Hirsch) who is like a bad family secret. And lest you think that everything about this particular, nuclear family is wonderful, there’s another skeleton lurking in the closet too which, when it comes to light, will completely transform Sammy’s understanding of people and of the world.
Constantly engaging, this is an extraordinary piece of realisation, of making an equivalent on the screen of incidents and memories from his own past. It ranks among Spielberg’s best. Perhaps it’s a surprise that that should be the case with what is, essentially, a family drama. And, then again, perhaps not.
The Fabelmans is out in cinemas in the UK on Friday, January 27th.