Steven Spielberg’s uncharacteristically personal drama The Fabelmans is a string of character-defining memories, rare insight into the world’s most famous director who has usually kept us at arm’s length. While his 30-plus movies have mostly traded in warmth and big, IMAX-sized emotion, there’s been an otherness, successfully synthetic (he’s a film-maker who rarely misses) but only allowing us a vague idea of who he is as a professional rather than a person.
His formative years are moulded into something semi-fictionalised here – this is The Fabelmans, not the Spielbergs – but the vague details are roughly the same, the story of a boy discovering his love for film as his family splinters around him. We start with his first experience at the cinema, as Sammy, in terrified awe of The Greatest Show on Earth and then haunted by what he’s seen. Determined to recreate the train crash that has filled his nightmares, to control and understand his fear, he begins a journey of home movies, both encouraged by his parents while reminded that a hobby should only take over so much of his time. As he grows, we spend the majority of the film with his teenage self, played by an excellent Gabriel LaBelle, as he wrestles with his passion while grappling with the slow decay of his parents’ marriage, played by Paul Dano and Michelle Williams.
Post-Roma we’ve seen a glut of big auteurs going small to bring something of their own previously unexplored past to life, toeing a fine line between vulnerable investigation and vainglorious indulgence. Despite his often unfairly simplified association with full-throated sentimentality, Spielberg’s attempt is actually relatively restrained and rooted in reality, avoiding the obvious cloy that could so easily come with the territory. The script, from Spielberg and Tony Kushner, speeds past the easy potholes and takes us somewhere less expected, focusing on smaller, not-as-easily explained emotions rather than the swell of the big. There remains a remove though still, Spielberg giving us a slightly too stage-managed version of himself and his family, some gristle missing from the darkest moments.
As his inventive younger self learns how to push the buttons of audiences within the low-budget limitations he’s lumped with (there’s real joy in the scenes of him finding nifty ways to make his modest films feel massive, even if the lack of grit and struggle makes it seem like he was a genius from the very start), at home his parents are in dire straits. His father’s career ascent has them moving from state to state, adding a strain to their friendship with “uncle” Benny, played by Seth Rogen, who Sammy starts to realise is more than just a friend to his mother.
While Spielberg avoids the easy, soapy conflicts such a situation could lead to (there are barely any moments of characters raising their voices), he also avoids showing us the bigger, messier picture. The trauma of depression, bullying, antisemitism, divorce and infidelity never seems that traumatic here, made to look like they’re all part of a crisp, handsome postcard set by cinematographer Janusz Kaminski. It’s unusual to see Spielberg working with a script that’s light on strict structure, his film jumping from moment to moment rather than something more closed and conventional, and while it does give the film a genuine sense of recollection – we rarely remember the bits in-between – it also makes the drama a little underpowered, his younger self fully realised while his parents lacking a bit more detail. There’s already talk of this finally being Williams’s Oscar to lose (she’s been nominated four times before) and it’s certainly a performance that goes for it, unusual and specific, propelled by an indefinably weird energy that we’re not used to seeing in suburban mothers from the 50s and 60s (in one telling scene, she drives toward a tornado rather than away). I’m not sure if it always worked for me, sometimes it felt a little too affected and artificial, but it’s certainly hard to take your eyes off her. Dano, whose look and vibe has usually been used for creepiness, is successfully softer here but it’s a brief cameo from Judd Hirsch as a strange and estranged uncle that could be the real awards play here, steamrolling into the house for one memorable night to give Sammy an unforgettable speech about how to navigate the need to create art. It brings an edge that I wanted more of.
At 150 minutes, the most indulgent thing about Spielberg’s nostalgic revisit is the runtime, an overlong trip down memory lane that could have done with some stops removed. But it’s a sweet, at times incredibly endearing, journey back.
The Fabelmans is screening at the Toronto film festival and will be released in the US on 11 November