If there’s anything worse than a bad film, it’s a bad film about films. Take Empire Of Light, Sam Mendes’ recent misty-eyed homage to the movies. It’s beautifully shot, but totally obsessed with lamenting an era that never really existed. Damien Chazelle’s Babylon is the same – a bloated orgy of nostalgia and excess. And if it weren’t for Steven Spielberg’s unique talents, The Fabelmans might have turned out similarly.
Loosely based on the acclaimed director’s experience growing up in New Jersey, Arizona and then California, The Fabelmans opens on young Sammy Fabelman’s first ever trip to the pictures. With the camera fixed on his face, we see his eyes widen in wonder and then fear as a train careers off the rails in the 1950s Western he and his middle class Jewish parents are watching. Little Sammy can’t sleep for a week afterwards, the terrifying image of the crash seared onto the inside of his eyelids. It’s only when mum Mitzi (Michelle Williams) has the bright idea of buying a rudimentary camera – and getting Sammy to recreate the crash with his toys, record it, and then replay it over and over – that he recovers from the fright. Henceforth, Sammy is addicted to making movies.
And make movies he does. With the help of dad Burt (Paul Dano), three sisters and a horde of enthusiastic buddies, now teenaged Sammy (Gabriel LaBelle) stages fake shootouts in the rocky desert near his house – and then snips the celluloid into shape at his bedroom editing station. The premieres pack out local scout meetings, where his pals squeal in delight to see themselves on screen. Later, when he’s bullied by anti-Semitic teens, Sammy gets revenge via his work. Commissioned to make a film of ‘ditch day’ – an annual high school sports meet at the beach – Sammy humiliates one of the boys in front of an audience of his peers, and transforms the other into a sort of macho adonis that he can never live up to. Both end up crying. In just a couple of scenes, and without ever mentioning it once, Spielberg demonstrates the power of cinema 100 times more effectively than Empire Of Light does with two hours in a grand Margate theatre.
Spielberg’s latest isn’t just about his love of cinema though. It’s also about his love of those close to him – and that stuff hits hardest. We watch Mitzy struggle with her mental health, Sammy’s sisters fail to fit in at their new school, and when Burt fights to keep his marriage together, the emotional toll feels heartbreakingly real. Both Dano and Williams are on Oscar-worthy form, starting out as a sugary sweet couple before their picture-perfect household crumbles. The great storyteller has been careful in interviews to remind us The Fabelmans is only semi-autobiographical, but everything cuts so deep that you’re left wondering if Spielberg left any of the truth out at all.
One highlight that definitely did happen is his meeting with lifelong hero John Ford, the legendary maestro behind classics Stagecoach and The Searchers. Played here by a wonderfully grouchy, cigar-smoking David Lynch in a rare cameo, Ford gives Sammy some straight-talking and hilariously useless advice on how to chase his dreams. It totally shatters the illusion of Hollywood’s Golden Age – not a pioneering movement helmed by genius mavericks, but an opportunistic racket built on luck. What Spielberg realises with The Fabelmans, and Mendes misses, is that only makes it more interesting.
- Director: Steven Spielberg
- Starring: Gabriel LaBelle, Michelle Williams, Paul Dano
- Release date: January 27 (in cinemas)