Steven Spielberg has been indirectly telling us about his childhood for so long he’s turned us all into amateur psychologists. From all those lost dads and the separation anxiety of Close Encounters and E.T., to the outright abandonment of Empire of the Sun and War of the Worlds, and even that pesky monkey in Raiders of the Lost Ark, we’ve felt the reverberations of his boyhood since he first called ‘action’. (Yes, his mum once bought the family a troublesome monkey).
So, does The Spielbergs – sorry, The Fabelmans – bring anything new to the table? Thanks to its filmmaker’s gifts, the open-hearted storytelling and some fine performances, especially from Williams and Dano, the answer is a resounding yes. ‘I still think I make personal movies,’ Spielberg has said, ‘even if they do look like big commercial popcorn films.’ Here’s his personal movie that looks like a personal movie.
On one level, it’s a slow-motion road trip film (hello, Sugarland Express) that follows young Sammy Fabelman, Spielberg’s on-screen surrogate, and his family, as work opportunities take them from New Jersey to the sun-kissed beaches and high-school antisemitism of ’60s California, via a painful period in Arizona.
It’s also a family drama full of repressed emotions, hidden secrets and difficult truths. Newcomer Gabriel LaBelle, a virtual doppelganger for the teenage Spielberg, plays witness as dad Burt (Paul Dano) disappears deeper and deeper into his career as a pioneering computer wizz and mum Mitzi (Michelle Williams), a one-time piano virtuoso of real talent, slowly withdraws, possibly suffering from with undiagnosed mental health issues.
Many of the movie’s joys lie in small details that could only stem from hard-earned personal experiences: from a first spellbinding trip to see Cecil B DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth at the cinema and Sammy’s attempts to recreate its blockbuster train crash on camera using toys, to an unforgettable final reel encounter with cranky film legend John Ford (David Lynch, in a role he was born to play).
And you can throw in larger-than-life Uncle Boris (a scene-stealing Judd Hirsch) demanding that Sammy be ‘a meshuggah for art’. Or Mitzi’s piano playing, accompanied by the clatter of her press-on nails. Or Sammy’s bittersweet bonding with the loving surrogate uncle, Bennie (Seth Rogen), who will inadvertently help cause his deepest pain.
It’s a film so full of lovely vignettes, it’s impossible not to imagine a dewy-eyed Spielberg recounting them to his co-writer Tony Kushner as the pair pored over its screenplay.
The first half drags in patches – and while not every moment of family life needs to brim with surprise and excitement, its family dramas are sometimes of the bog-standard variety.
Spielberg gets to make a high-school film full of giddy subversions and emotional truths
But it all comes to fizzy life again when teenage Sammy arrives in California. Spielberg gets the chance to do something he’s never done before and make a miniature high-school film full of giddy subversions and emotional truths. There are first loves and bullies and a first encounter with racial prejudice that make for a cocktail of gorgeously rendered epiphanies.
Amid them, The Fabelmans other coming-of-age story – of Sammy’s first steps as a filmmaker – comes to the boil in a Beach Blanket Babylon-style film that he shoots of his classmates. Through it, he learns the power of the camera to manipulate reality and create stars. The sense that Spielberg is still marvelling at, and grappling with it, even now, 50 years on, is unmistakable.
And it brings one of the film’s best scenes. In it, Sammy reassures one of his former tormenters, a jock he has just turned into a movie star in that high-school flick, that he won’t tell anyone that the effect of it had left him a teary mess. ‘Well, unless I make a movie about it,’ Sammy jokes, ‘which I’m never going to do.’ Of course, he didn’t keep that promise. Then again, how could he? He’s always been meshuggah for art.
In US theaters now. Out in UK cinemas Jan 27.