It’s no secret that The Fablemans is a retelling of Steven Spielberg’s early years. Told through the eyes of Sammy Fabelman, this filmic bildungsroman follows the traditional literary stages to maturity. Think David Copperfield without the blacking factory.
The movie opens with Sammy’s parents (Mitzi and Bart) cajoling him into his first movie encounter (The Greatest Show on Earth). He is an anxious child, and the film’s train crash traumatises and intrigues him. Back home, his Hannukah train set gift evolves from a plaything to the prop for Sammy’s first film; he’s encouraged by mum (great performance from Michelle Williams). And ongoing gifts from dad; it’s a great portrayal of a 1950’s Jewish middleclass family.
However, at the family table much more is afoot. No spoilers here, but the ensuing family drama is prefigured with meaningful dinnertime glances.
Sammy (well played Gabriel LaBelle) continues to produce films—montage of him filming/scaring his sisters—that become more sophisticated as he grows. Sometimes he captures more than he expects, and the family secret unfolds before his eyes.
Fast forward and the Fabelmans have moved to California. Their Jewish heritage is thrust into to limelight through high school bullies (bad) and romance (good). He graduates and a memorable encounter with John Ford (David Lynch) sets Sammy on his inevitable path. He becomes the hero of his own story.
The Fabelmans manages to swerve self-indulgence, just. Mainly thanks to the great performances of Michelle Williams (Mitzi) and Paul Dano (the father who knowingly turns a blind eye)—they’re a seemingly traditional family but are they? Mitzi is a flighty, emotional homemaker and talented pianist who veers short of being a bit crazy; Dad is an earnest clever engineer (?) who tries to engage the family in the possibilities of the emerging technologies; uncle Boris (Judd Hirsch) is the creative showman who urges dream following.
Janusz Kaminski’s cinematography is metaphoric as the film is swathed in a filmic nostalgia of flickering lights early on and then in a Californian sunshine so bright it almost makes the eyes water. The promise of glittering prizes beckons. And the rest is history.