The Fabelmans

Year: 2022
Production Co: Ambling Entertainment
Director: Steven Spielberg
Writer: Steven Spielberg/Tony Kushner
Cast: Gabrielle LaBelle, Michelle Williams, Paul Dano, Seth Rogen, Judd Hirsch

After trying and owning every other genre in the business, where else was there for Steven Spielberg to go but to tell his own story? I sometimes wonder if he feels like Alexander the Great, weeping when he has no more worlds to conquer, but after recently watching the HBO doco Spielberg on his life and times it's nice to see he still gets excited – even terrified – about the creative process.

Little Sammy Fabelman, like Spielberg in a parallel universe, goes to the movies with his parents in the early 50s to see The Greatest Show on Earth. He's captivated by a train robbery scene and his future is set, asking for a train set for his Hanukkah present and sitting up late at night crashing it over and over, trying to recreate the magic he felt by what he'd seen on the movie screen.

His stoic, understanding but slightly more authoritarian computer programmer father Burt (Paul Dano) isn't very impressed by his new obsession, but his musician mother Mitzi (Michelle Williams), who's a bit flakier and softer and who indulges his sudden artistic emergence, secretly lets him recreate the scene, slipping him his dad's 8mm movie camera so he can film it and revisit the excitement whenever he wants.

Burt's job takes them from the leafy climes of New Jersey to the deserts of Phoenix, and the Fabelman family starts again. Sammy grows into a teen in the form of Gabriel LaBelle, doing okay at school and making films with his friends on weekends, hardly even bothering to try and explain to his father that it's not just a hobby but a calling.

But it's following a family camping trip that Sammy really grows up. Mitzi's mother has died, leaving her anchorless, and his father insists he edit and footage he's shot from the trip into a home movie to cheer her up, even though Sam's got better things to do.

It's while he does so that he uncovers his family's secret. Jovial, loveable family friend Bennie (Seth Rogen), a colleague and buddy of his Dad's who's been around forever and has moved to Phoenix too, very much a part of the family, has accompanied them on the camping trip, and when Sam looks closely at what he's filmed it's obvious Bennie and Mitzi are hiding an affair.

Soon after, the family moves again for Burt's work, this time to California, but they're all broken. Sammy can barely forgive his mother or keep her secret. Burt, who's kind and upstanding but not stupid, knows something. And Mitzi is heartbroken because Bennie has stayed behind in Phoenix.

Sam even gives up on moviemaking, shoving the camera Bennie buys him under his bed and forgetting it while he tries to fit into yet another new community of peers – this time facing antisemitism in very waspy, whitebread suburbs.

The Fabelman parents further devastate everybody by announcing they're getting divorced, but it's when the staunchly Christian girl Sam starts dating suggests he film the annual day for students to goof off on the beach and make a movie about it that he recaptures the old magic again.

It's especially so when one of the bullies who's been giving him trouble confronts him about the way he's been portrayed so heroically – the first time Sam realises that as the director, he's the author selecting the way shots and cuts are put together to elicit the emotional response he wants in the audience.

History is made when he moves to Hollywood after school, living in an apartment with his Dad and running out of money trying to get work at a film studio when a producer who answers a letter offers to introduce him to one of his heroes, John Ford (David Lynch) in a neighbouring office – the same meeting Spielberg himself had.

The more I think about it, the more I realise what a distinctly Spielbergian movie it was, even despite the personal subject matter, telling a straight story with a definite plot that contains just enough theme and allegory to keep it out of the arthouse.

The obvious one is the beautiful but troubled marriage between art and technology, personified by his parents, who seemed from opposite ends of the universe but also seemed to fit together perfectly – until it was obvious they never did.

Another one is given by the character of Mitzi's gruff brother Boris (Judd Hirsch), who comes to visit one day and only stays for a few nights but who tells Sammy he can see the soul of an artist in him, warning him that even though a life devoted to the arts will enrich his soul it will put him at odds with people he loves who don't believe in it like he does, but that no matter how much it hurts he must throw himself into it unashamedly.

There's also a quite neat device in that Sammy finds out about his mother's infidelity through the act of being a filmmaker – seeing footage of the evidence everyone missed in real life. I'm not sure if it happened that exact way for Spielberg himself but there's a nice theme about how his passion reveals the world to him in ways not even his own eyes have.

Then there are the couple of very clever diegetic gags (I know that refers to sound, but I don't know of a similar term that describes story points or cuts). The first is when the school bully, who finally accepts Sam's reasoning, warns him not to tell anybody that he got upset, to which Sammy promises he won't... 'unless I make a movie about this one day', which Spielberg is indeed doing.

The other is the final shot following Sam walking away between huge soundstages on a studio lot, finally where he belongs, when the camera suddenly tilts upwards to bring the horizon down in the frame – the very advice Ford has just given him moments earlier.

Along with The BFG and 1941, it represents one of Spielberg's rare box office failures, but there's a reason his position in the industry is iron clad – he could make ten of them in a row and still be the most successful (and one of the best) film directors the world's ever seen.

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