Memories tinkle to the tune of the warmest song sheet in this, Steven Spielberg’s gorgeous tribute to his formative years. Fictionalised but painstakingly true to life, The Fabelmans is a charmer of a film. It’s absorbing and Spielberg’s most personal work to date by far, bled through with all the flavours of half a century of filmmaking. The cast too delight, bringing to life tales from a past now immortalised for the ages. In so many ways, The Fabelmans feels like the film Spielberg’s career has been building towards right from the day Firelight make a single dollar in profit back in 1964. By the same stroke, it’s a film he was not ready to make until this very moment.
As penned by Spielberg himself, alongside regular collaborator Tony Kushner (Lincoln, West Side Story), The Fabelmans brims with the sort of rose-tinted wisdom that only time and distance can afford. We open in 1952 and the New Jersey hometown of Sammy Fabelman (first Mateo Zoryan Francis-DeFord, then Gabriel LaBelle – both superb), a proxy young Spielberg and son of Michelle Williams and Paul Dano’s partially polar parents Mitzi and Burt. She’s a freewheeling artiste and concert pianist turned full time mother. He’s a practically minded computer engineer on the cusp of a spike in career fortunes. While Mitzi encourages Sammy’s creative spirit, Burt deems his burgeoning interest in filmmaking a hobby in lieu of some more practical endeavour. Both, however, are present for their son’s seminal first cinema experience – a trip to DeMille’s Greatest Show on Earth. And what a show it is.
There’s a wonderful, perhaps surprising, eye for the technicality of filmmaking amid The Fabelmans’ dreamier, soft edges. They may not sound it but scenes in which Sammy meticulously scrolls through reels, cuts film and hangs strips from the walls of his makeshift editing suite make for engrossing viewing. More obviously fascinating are behind the scenes snippets of the supreme ingenuity behind Sammy’s low budget effects in early homespun moviemaking with the local Boy Scouts. Here, the dichotomous relationship between art and science is unpacked. As his mother marvels at her son’s empathetic eye – ‘you really see me’ – Burt Fabelman is agog at the mechanics. ‘Now you’re thinking like an engineer,’ he enthuses on learning one such recipe for movie magic. Sammy’s maternal inheritance is so openly noted in the film but there’s something reflective in the acknowledgment of a more composite truth. Spielberg is nothing if not deferential in representing his parents, even as Mitzi’s eye wanders in the direction of her husband’s ‘best friend’ Bennie (Seth Rogan).
Dano gives a lovely, soulful performance throughout the film and does well not to be entirely outshone by Williams, whose more showy role allows for inevitable scene-stealing. Williams is, nonetheless, doe-eyed perfection as the effervescent, almost otherworldly, Mitzi. One wonders how much of Spielberg’s real mother – Leah Adler – informed the role; yet, even if only a fraction, it is not hard to perceive the awe with which the director recalls her existence to this day. A memorable first act scene sees Mitzi drive all but her very youngest child into the edge of a tornado. Later, she will buy and bring home a monkey in an infantile bid to feel in all aspects of her life the wonderment she experienced viewing monkeys through the bars of a zoo.
With each of Burt’s promotions comes fresh upheaval for the family, who first relocate to Phoenix and then to Saratoga, California, where ‘everybody makes movies’. It is here, in the film’s final third, that low lying wounds gape and Spielberg communicates most strongly the power of his art. At school, bullies torment Sammy for his Jewishness – although a blisteringly funny twist sees this inherent quality draw his first love too. Sam retaliates as only he can. Through film. One is humiliated, a laughing stock, the other shot in so flattering a light that the avatar captured on screen proves a horror to the jock who can never live up to such a vision of godliness. Elsewhere, Sammy learns the power of editing as a tool for narrative manipulation. To reveal or conceal, sanitise or expose, control the chaos.
Optimism is, however, the lasting message of The Fabelmans. This is a film that sends its audiences away lighter than on entry and drenched in homespun honey. It’s an intimate pleasure, coloured expertly by cinematographer Janusz Kamiński, with the grain of a particularly precocious home video. A dainty score by John Williams channels his and Spielberg’s own greatest hits and brims with lovelorn nostalgia. Williams has warned that his next work, the fifth Indiana Jones film, may be his last. As for Spielberg, there’s no let up. At heart, he’s still the young boy cradling the projections of his own creativity, the wonderment undiminished.