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Spielberg’s The Fabelmans is a major and personal work

The director’s 34th feature – and the first to turn the camera on himself – ranks as one of his best.

By Ryan Gilbey

When Steven Spielberg began his wartime comedy 1941 with a visual gag in which a swimmer is ambushed by a menace from the deep (it turns out to be a submarine rather than a shark), the act of self-homage felt premature as well as indulgent. Jaws had opened four years earlier in 1975, and Spielberg’s career was scarcely much older than that.

Surely no one would begrudge him the references to his own back catalogue in The Fabelmans, his 34th film as well as only the third of his movies on which he has taken a writing credit. (He co-wrote it with the playwright Tony Kushner, whose previous work for him includes Lincoln.) Besides, such allusions are relevant to this fictionalised account of the director’s childhood, which shows how his film-making talent flourished as the family moved from state to state, his parents’ marriage fraying along the way. The role of his on-screen surrogate, Sammy Fabelman, is split between Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord, as the owl-eyed six-year-old incarnation, and Gabriel LaBelle, taking over in twitchy adolescence.

In that context, it is cheering to make out the shape of films to come, with visual references to Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark and others. Spielberg even acknowledges his own inadequacies. “It’s always men staring off into the distance,” notes Sammy’s sister after watching one of his shorts. “Maybe a girl could save the day.” Saving the day isn’t within the skill-set of Sammy’s impulsive mother Mitzi, a former concert pianist who has the faraway look of someone still performing for an imaginary audience – but the complexity of that role, and Michelle Williams’s fiery, flailing, nostril-flaring brilliance, serves as a tardy rejoinder of sorts.

[See also: Tár is a crafty, cryptic take on art and morality in the online age]

Movies enter Sammy’s life in 1952 when he is taken by her and his father, a placid engineer named Burt (Paul Dano), to see The Greatest Show on Earth. He emerges startled from the film – which really did inspire Spielberg’s youthful wish, long since surpassed, to become the “Cecil B DeMille of science-fiction” – but is soon demanding an electric train set for Hanukkah so that he can recreate its spectacular crash at home. Mitzi suggests that he shoot the scene on his father’s cine camera to avoid damaging the toys in repeated pile-ups. Only later does she comprehend the function of filming: it enables Sammy to control the chaos of reality.

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As a teenager, he sees life through an invisible viewfinder. Visiting a dying relative, he notices the pulse drumming feebly in her neck. When his parents fight, he pictures himself weaving among them, capturing all the best angles. Shooting a home movie on a family camping trip, Sammy inadvertently uncovers a secret: Mitzi and his father’s goofy best friend, Bennie (Seth Rogen), are in love.

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We have already heard Sammy’s feral Uncle Boris (Judd Hirsch) raging about how the competing demands of family and art will “tear you in two”. The exploration of film as coping mechanism, distancing device and voyeuristic tool, however, nudges The Fabelmans briefly into the territory of Brian De Palma. Spielberg’s friend and fellow “movie brat” amassed evidence of his own father’s infidelities, his predilection for surveillance later driving thrillers such as Dressed to Kill and Blow Out. What a surprise to find Spielberg, the supreme sentimentalist, occupying that murky realm. We didn’t know he had it in him.

The rest of the picture has its joys, especially a knockout cameo by one master auteur (David Lynch) playing another (John Ford). If the second half flags, though, it is not because the anti-Semitism that Sammy encounters at his new school in northern California is less serious a subject than his domestic tensions, but rather because Spielberg hasn’t found an equally dynamic way to dramatise it. As Sammy swoons over girls and dodges bullies, we could be watching any high-school coming-of-age film.

There is also the sense that by finding a distorted mirror-image of Sammy’s relationship with Mitzi in his interactions with his handsome tormentor Logan (Sam Rechner), Spielberg and Kushner are diligently completing a pattern rather than developing the script’s themes imaginatively. But The Fabelmans still ranks as a major work for its director, not to mention a breakthrough of sorts. Only now, at the age of 76, has it dawned on him that perhaps—to quote Maxine Audley in Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom – “all this filming isn’t healthy”.

“The Fabelmans” is in cinemas from 27 January

[See also: Damien Chazelle’s Babylon is a spectacular mess]

This article appears in the 25 Jan 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Why Germany doesn’t do it better