The Fabelmans (2022)

March 4th, 2023
Author: Meredith Taylor

Dir: Steven Spielberg | Cast: Michelle Williams, Gabriel LaBelle, Paul Dano | US Biopic Drama 151′

Steven Spielberg’s own family story unfolds in this delightfully tender look back at his childhood seen through the eyes of his fictional alter ego Sammy (played as an adolescent by Gabriel LaBelle).

The Fabelmans is also tribute to the wonder of cinema and the American Dream, the nostalgia for the days of our own childhood, and a rose-tinted reverie about a fractured family that feels convincing and (justifiably) sentimental rather than bitter. This is a story than envelopes you in its warmth and heartfelt conviction – you get a palpable sense of this pragmatic young storyteller who would eventually, through conviction and perseverance, become one of the world’s greatest living filmmakers.

There’s also a whimsical quality that makes The Fabelmans such a joy to watch through Janusz Kaminski’s softly-lensed visuals. And that’s largely because Spielberg has such emotional intelligence and pours it all into a brilliant script with his co-writer Tony Kushner. Casting-wise the film is also a triumph: Paul Dano and Gabriel LaBelle are undeniably watchable as a father and son who are worlds apart – Burt a scientist, Sammy an artist – but eventually come to understand one another, without violence or rancour. Michelle Williams is sublime as Mitzi, the blond, pixie-haired Jewish princess of a mother of four, who could have been a concert pianist but settled down as a traditional postwar matriach and feels frustrated and unfulfilled, but is still worshiped by her decent, loving husband (who won’t admit there is anything wrong) and accommodated by her giving son (who discretely unveils his mother’s treachery on the medium of cine-film). And this generosity of spirit and tolerance makes for a satisfying family story with a happy-ish ending.

The tale begins in one of those snowy Hollywood-style Christmases in 1952 where the Fabelmans are celebrating Chanukah in their expansive home in New Jersey – with candles rather than fairy lights and Santas. Burt, an outstanding computer engineer, and Mitzi, a homemaker, take Sammy to his first movie: Cecil B DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth, which is shocking and transformative for the wide-eyed little Sammy (played by Mateo Zoryon). Burt’s brilliant career then takes them all to Arizona where there is plenty of scope for family fire-side barbecues and singing with Mitzi, the dynamo at the centre of it all, and where her subversive relationship with demon seed ‘Uncle’ Bennie (Rogen) strikes a subtle note of caution, although Burt’s mother Hadassah (Jeannie Berlin) has been hinting at this all along. And this episode is fleshed out when the family finally move to California.

For Sammy filming is his saving grace and a way of escape from all these traumas. It also, amusingly, comes it handy as a ‘babe magnet’ when Sammy falls foul of antisemitism in his California high school where he comes up trumps despite a variety of hateful stock characters. There is also an entertaining visit from Mitzi’s wayward Uncle Boris (Judd Hirsch) who offers Sammy valuable career advice:, “Art will tear your heart out.” MT

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