The Fabelmans (2022)

Meet the Fabelmans – a slightly sanitised, rose-tinted-glasses version of director Steven Spielberg’s family and young life. We start with young Sammy encountering the spectacle of the cinema for the first time, and watch it develop into an obsession – largely sparked by a need for control over nightmares.

The movie will show young Stev- urm, Sammy – go on to bigger and more complex things, directing his friends in stories that ape those he sees on the big screen (and, very cool, these are reshoots of actual movies made by Spielberg in his youth, so you get a little bit more movie history magic!). I really loved all of these little bits, especially the moments such as inventing his own special effects to get more ‘reality’ on the screen. This bit, this worked great for me – you could really see how a career at the top of the movie world was shaped.

However, the movie isn’t just about film making. In fact, it’s rather more about the family dynamic, with a hefty side dose of exploring the times. It’s taken me a while to appreciate the whole, as initially I was quite disappointed by the lack of focus on the movie-making.

Dad Burt (Paul Dano) is an electrical engineer, hugely intelligent as he helps drive the invention and development of modern computing. Mum Mitzi (Michelle Williams) gave up her career as a concert pianist to raise her three kids (Sammy’s two sisters have very slight roles). And then there’s ‘Uncle’ Bennie, Burt’s colleague and family friend.

When Burt’s work takes the family across country, all the tensions bubbling under the surface start to grow. Sammy also faces severe bullying from his new high school’s anti-Semite jocks, as well as romantic interest from a devout Christian girl who sees him as ‘a handsome Jewish boy, like Jesus’. Oy o.O

On the surface, the bulk of the narrative does seem to be driven by Mitzi and the ‘family secrets’. As I said, I was a little disappointed by the melodrama and personal foibles kind of take, especially as I saw the ‘big reveal’ from about 5 minutes in (I doubt it was meant as a ‘twist’, really), over the budding movie director element. And then I read a few things, and I pondered, and finally it all clicks into place.

For, beneath all of the other events – the family dynamic, the bigoted bullying at school – there is Sammy and his camera. And in capturing moments on film, he both reveals and shapes the narrative. I went into this thinking that the ‘important’ movie moments were the amateur action spectaculars that Sammy uses to learn his craft. But actually, it’s the little moments he captures on the family camping trip, or the way he frames the school beach day movie to elevate or destroy classmates’ images – it’s the way that a film can shape reality.

I can see now why this is nominated for awards, something that puzzled me a little at first. However, my initial experience was “Hmm, bit Sunday afternoon drama”. Yes, I get it now, but impressive as all that is, I think this might initially not quite ‘grab’ fans of Spielberg’s movies – surely the target audience, but obviously nothing like Raiders or Jaws or Private Ryan. There is still a little bit of “Sunday afternoon family drama” to it all – and yet, you can see some of the themes that creep through even sci-fi or adventure movies from the maestro.

I’m actually quite impressed at the complexity of it all – not surprised, of course. There’s a reason Spielberg is who he is, even in a quieter, very personal kind of tale.

Fabelmans posterReleased: 27th January 2023
Viewed: 2nd January 2023
Running time: 150 minutes
Rated: 12A

My rating: 7/10 on initial viewing, but upping it to an 8 after some thinking about it all!


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