At The Movies: Steven Spielberg’s boyhood memoir a bittersweet tale

The Fabelmans is Steven Spielberg's memoir about growing up wanting to make films from a young age. PHOTO: UIP

The Fabelmans (PG13)

151 minutes, opens on Thursday

3 stars

The story: In this story based on Hollywood film-maker Steven Spielberg’s own boyhood, Sammy Fabelman (Gabriel LaBelle) is a teen obsessed with making films. He ropes in his sisters and friends into amateur productions that mimic his favourite Westerns and war movies. His father Burt (Paul Dano) is an engineer and inventor who indulges his son’s hobby, as does his mother Mitzi (Michelle Williams), a woman who gave up her music career to be a housewife.

This coming-of-age drama has seven Oscar nominations, including for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress (Williams) and Best Supporting Actor (Judd Hirsch).

When one of cinema’s living masters wants to do a memoir, it makes sense that it would be in a format he is most comfortable with – film. The result is a movie about making movies and an answer to the question, “What were you like as a kid?”

Spielberg has made two artistic choices. First, he takes a deep dive into his teen years, a time marked by frequent family moves caused by his father’s corporate postings. Second, an emotionally traumatising event is shown, with its inclusion implying that it has shaped him as a person and an artist.

There are a couple of issues with The Fabelmans, but as is typical of a Spielberg production, craftsmanship is not one of them. The screenplay, a joint effort between Spielberg and frequent collaborator Tony Kushner (spy drama Munich, 2005; the musical West Side Story, 2021), skilfully combines psychological realism with lighter storytelling that evokes tender feelings for a lost age, when rock ’n’ roll was fresh and one’s grandparents were still around to dish out the occasional hard-won insight. Hirsch as Sammy’s irascible grand-uncle Boris lights up the screen every time he appears.

The Fabelmans stars Gabriel LaBelle (left) and Judd Hirsch. PHOTO: UIP

Indeed, a large part of the movie deals with Sammy’s love of the craft. The high schooler is enthralled by cameras and film stock, and with creating heroes and villains using only images. The nerdy enthusiasm in those scenes is infectious.

Where the film falters is when it tries to raise the stakes – there is material here about bullying at school and a family shock that appears to say something about the way trauma shapes the artist’s personality, but it is presented in an awkwardly blunt fashion.

Hot take: While this fictionalised story of a boy and his camera works well as a series of funny, touching anecdotes about a young artist suffering for his art, an attempt at giving it psychological depth falls flat.

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