Biopics are nothing new; they’re a staple of the cinematic ecosystem. But it’s a rare thing when a biography of a famous person, in this case Steven Spielberg, is created by the subject himself; this might be considered closer to an autobiography in that Spielberg himself is very much the author, recounting tales from his own formative years in a fictional guise. The result, unsurprisingly, is a generally warm and fuzzy account of a Californian childhood and teen years, with the protagonist pretty much hopelessly in thrall to the movies from square one.
Sam Fabelman (Gabriel LaBelle) takes a stern lecture from his mom and dad Mitzi and Burt (Michelle Williams and Paul Dano) before his first trip to the flicks; The Greatest Show on Earth is the film they see, complete with a spectacular train crash that young Sam wants to emulate with his train set. Rather than see his toy tarnished, his parents buy him a film camera to capture the action for posterity, setting young Sam in a journey from Bolex to Arriflex and beyond, mounting larger and more elaborate productions at a prodigious age. But not all is well with his mother, and Sam finds disturbing evidence in his own footage that Mitzi’s relationship with family friend Bennie (Seth Rogen) might just ruin their family unity…
The Fabelmans starts slow; Sam’s development is carefully charted, but conflict is largely absent. Sam’s desire to film on the weekend of his grandmother’s death is as close to catharsis as we get. Things liven up through when we get to high school, where Sam suffers bullying for his Jewish background, and gets some worthy advice in an extended Judd Hirsch cameo as lion tamer Uncle Boris. Sam gets chewed up and used up by his first romantic relationship, where he’s essentially engaged to deliver a professional Beach Blanket documentary and then gets swiftly dumped before the film reaches a euphoric audience. And there’s a tonne of easter eggs that allow us to see where Sam Fabelman is going; there’s references to Spielberg productions that keep it fresh in our minds that Sam is a prodigal son, even if his family keep getting in the way of his potential success.
The Fabelmans will be of interest to Spielberg’s fans, of which there are many, but it doesn’t speak to much else other than nostalgia; the past is revealed as complicated and bitter-sweet, but there’s little insight into how and where the young film-maker gained his prowess other than hard work. The technique, by which old 8mm footage efforts are reworked with today’s technology, is fascinating, but the emotional impact is distant; a final, crowd-pleasing ending wheels in David Lynch as John Ford, but this wow cameo merely reminds us that Spielberg must have other, less personally conflicted stories to tell. It’s odd that the film that The Fabelmans most closely thematically resembles is one that Spielberg produced rather than directed; Back to the Future. From the son horrified by maternal infidelity at his father’s expense to the high-school prom setting, there’s multiple parallels, even down to the white-haired wizard with the dog in a sports car complete with a lightning hook that the young Sam plays with. In the final analysis, The Fabelmans feels like an intensely personal work for a beloved director that’s less likely to generate quite the same intensity from escapism-starved audiences.