If you’ve read anything about Steven Spielberg’s gleaming bildungsroman – or whatever the filmic equivalent might be – you’ll know it closes with a contemporary director playing a variation of a gruff one from Hollywood’s golden age. Here’s the thing. Do you need to know who those men are to appreciate the best scene in the film? For that matter, do you need a grasp of Spielberg’s career – allusions to the hits abound – to appreciate the meaty heart of this exquisitely honed film? Early readers of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man needed no such background knowledge, but Joyce wasn’t yet a celebrity on the scale of Spielberg. And he didn’t cast Ezra Pound to play Marcel Proust.
A facetious observer might describe The Fabelmans as ET or Close Encounters without the aliens. The film concerns fracturing families in unfashionable parts of the American interior. Spielberg, as ever, proves supernaturally adept at drawing poignant performances from children. But that comparison wears thin as the lengthy film, which has earned Spielberg an Oscar nomination for best director, as well as a shared screenplay nomination, moves from the nostalgic to the fraught, then to the confessional. There may be a televisual sheen over the action, but abrasive emotions break through.
We begin with Mitzi and Burt Fabelman (Michelle Williams and Paul Dano) bringing young Sammy Fabelman (then Mateo Zoryan Francis-DeFord, later Gabriel LaBelle) to see the film that will persuade him to live life behind a camera. Spielberg acknowledges the populist in himself by alighting on one of the least celebrated Oscar best picture winners: Cecil B DeMille’s circus drama The Greatest Show on Earth. The boy later shoots a reconstruction of the train crash in the film on his dad’s movie camera. Not for the last time in The Fabelmans, everyone celebrates his godly gifts. Spielberg presents young Sammy as an archetypal schlemiel – clumsy with girls, no great athlete – but he does not hold back on pumping up his prodigious genius.
The picture also, perhaps inadvertently, identifies Stevie/Sammy as being ahead of his time in a troubling contemporary fixation. Like Gen Z teenagers viewing every important event first through the screen of their smartphone, young Fabel-berg shoots his unfolding life on expensive celluloid. At least one family memory has to be restaged here for his camera. The story’s central revelation is revealed in the corner of an early Sammy production.
That twist colours the protagonist’s complex, occasionally unsettling, relationship with his mother. The Fabelmans is clearly striving to be on Mitzi’s side, but, though she seems justified in her frustrations – a talented pianist dragged from her vocation – the screenplay, written by the director and Tony Kushner, can’t quite make sense of her more unfortunate choices. Williams is perhaps a little too adept at brittleness to invite empathy.
We are being urged to ponder how artistic influences from mom and technological influences from dad, an engineer, helped create Sammy’s incoming creative aesthetic (and that of you know who). He makes a war film that nods to Saving Private Ryan. He shoots a documentary on the beach that looks forward… well, what do you think? That tension between art and science is a tad on the nose, but there is so much else going on here – even in such a long film – that we scarcely have time to object.
Judd Hirsch has a lovely cameo as an eccentric granduncle. Seth Rogen stretches out as a friend of the family. You hardly need to be told, this being a Spielberg joint, that the juvenile performances are excellent, but we nonetheless single out Julia Butters as Sammy’s sister (whose alter ego would go on to cowrite Penny Marshall’s Big). Along the way, the audience gets a sense of how abrasively anti-Semitism nagged at Americans of that generation.
The result is neither as sentimental nor as moving – if those adjectives can be separated – as the director’s more personal 20th century films. It does, however, feel complete in itself. Cleanly shot. Immaculately performed. And, no, you probably don’t need to know Spielberg from Carlsberg to have a good time.
The Fabelmans opens in cinemas on Friday, January 27th