Films about filmmaking are relatively common: we had one, in Babylon, only this month. Tarantino gave us Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Scorsese made Hugo. Of these though, only Scorsese’s was about someone developing that initial love for cinema. The Fabelmans, the latest project from Steven Spielberg is preceded by an introduction from the man himself, in which he talks of it being a love letter to his family and to cinema, movie-making, and his most personal film.
A quick look at his history has him born to a Jewish family, in Cincinnati, Ohio, but raised first in New Jersey, then Phoenix Arizona, finally moving to California for film school. His father was an engineer, working with computers, and his mother a pianist. His first attempt at making a film was with his train set, and he is also a child of divorce. Almost all of these attributes are given to this film’s protagonist, Sam Fabelman (Gabriel LaBelle as a teenager, Mateo Zoryan Francis-DeFord when he is around five years of age, if we are to assume he shares Spielberg’s date of birth).
Sam’s parents are Burt (Paul Dano) and Mitzi (Michelle Williams). They have recently had their fourth child (three girls, and Sam) when we meet them, ahead of the boy’s first visit to the cinema to see Cecille B. DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth. Entranced by the experience, having been scared before going in, he asks for a train set for Hanukkah. He develops an interest in filming a crash of his train, as he had seen such a set-piece in the film. Mitzi theorises that he is recreating the stunt as a way of dealing with his fear of the sequence in the film. Filmmaking becomes an obsession as he moves into his teen years, and the family move to Phoenix along with Burt’s best friend, Bennie (Seth Rogen), who Burt hires alongside him in every job – the career being the reason for the move.
Continuing to make films for his fellow Boy Scouts, Sam is showing signs of talent, producing simple ways to make the in-camera effects for the film, as well as able to get good performances from his actors. Burt is a kind man, but a scientist in a house full of artists – Mitzi’s brother (Judd Hirsh) was an actor as a younger man. It is perfectly clear to the viewer that his marriage has a tension, and that they are not really the best match, something not fully explained to us for a while. Later moving on the California for another promotion for Burt, Sam has to navigate learning of his parents’ failing marriage, his first girlfriend, and some anti-Semitic bullying at his new school. All the while honing his craft as he is asked to prepare a 16mm film for prom.
Let get some small negatives out of the way first. The film feels too long. Babylon is nearly forty minutes longer, yet, comparatively, it flies by. This does linger a little too long on certain plot points, and some of the filmmaking sequences are lengthy, presumably as Spielberg is getting a massive nostalgia rush from recreating his earliest adventures as a child. Whilst the family feels like a real unit, with well-drawn characters, Mitzi is not the most sympathetic. She can be somewhat melodramatic, though it must be remembered that this is Sam’s perspective, we are seeing only what he sees, and not everything is fully clear to him, as to why his family behaves the way it does. In this regard, it is very much like Richard Linklater’s Boyhood.
These are minor flaws, if they are flaws at all, as other views will be available on the character work and the film’s length. This aside, it is film made for those who love filmmaking, but also for those that miss bygone eras of their lives. This is a warm, richly drawn family, with flaws, that we recognise as real, whether or not we have any knowledge of the time portrayed, or the faith in which they live their lives.
LaBelle is a real find, giving presence to the role, and in certain lights he does look like a young Spielberg. Family events feel authentic, and a 76-year old director is able to give a mid-teens young man realistic dialogue (take note James Cameron), as it is the dialogue of his own childhood. As a master filmmaker himself, he is able to impart the correct way to use the equipment, and it is strangely satisfying to watch Sam editing his work. It must have been a joy for Steven to recreate such warm memories.
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It feels like it was a joy to make, and this translates to the viewing experience. These are people that it is – mostly – enjoyable to spend time with, with a story that is much more about the journey than the destination. As such, do not worry too much about where it is all going, and just enjoy time with The Fabelmans. Recommended.
The Fabelmans is out now at cinemas.