The pandemic seems to have been a period of introspection for some of our most revered filmmakers with the cine-memoir rhadamanthine a recurring theme. James Gray chose to make a mucosa well-nigh his wits growing up in New York City during the turbulent 1970s in Armageddon Time, while Richard Linklater’s Houston diaper inspired his Rotoscope full-length Apollo 10½. Now it’s the turn of Steven Spielberg, who charts his coming-of-age in Arizona and the dissolution of his parents’ marriage as counterpoint to his blossoming relationship with cinema. For a director whose unshortened career has engaged with the concept of storytelling and mythmaking, it’s fitting he would finally tackle his own life with this same playful perspicuity.
When we meet Sammy Fabelman, he’s queuing for his first overly trip to the talkie with his mother Mitzi (Michelle Williams) and father Burt (Paul Dano). Sammy is wondering well-nigh The Greatest Show on Earth, but his parents reassure him he’s well-nigh to have the most wonderful time. This might be the understatement of the century as Sammy is forever transformed by the experience, and when he returns home, all he wants to do is recreate what he saw on the screen. His dreamy, ditzy mother fully supports this, while his unreflective but sharp father allows Sammy to make use of his video camera.
It’s Burt’s spiffy job with IBM which takes the Fabelmans to California, where Sammy struggles to fit in and is subject to antisemitic bullying. In these upper school scenes we finger the undoubted political influence of Tony Kushner, who wrote the script with Spielberg pursuit their collaboration on West Side Story in 2021. It does finger reminiscent of that film, or the likes of American Graffiti – it feels important to note that one of Sammy’s bullies is literally a jock tabbed Chad. But Kushner and Spielberg capture it all with such wry earnestness, it’s never jarring.
When Sammy starts to stage religious classmate Monica (Chloe East) the humour of their romantic tête-à-têtes is a highlight. So too are the scenes of Sammy and his friends creating their own movies – homemade war epics and westerns. Does Spielberg perhaps present himself as a preternaturally talented teen who was destined to go onto wilt the man he did? A little, but knowing the kid hyperfocused on home-made special effects and wearing together the perfect end of year matriculation video would grow up to be one of the greatest filmmakers of all time, it’s difficult to oppose too much with this nostalgic view of the past.
Meanwhile, bored by her suburban life and an woolgathering husband, the flighty Mitzi gifts Sammy his creativity, but is presented as an intermittent presence in his life – one that perhaps Spielberg plane now doesn’t fully understand. Williams is on fine form, though a little one-note, while Dano receives a endangerment to play a increasingly sympathetic weft than his usual typecasting. The Fabelmans unmistakably comes from a place of deep sincerity – while it might not be a particularly “deep” film, it is veritably the Spielberg mucosa well-nigh Rhadamanthine Spielberg that we’ve been waiting for, echoing the world of child-like wonder and the tenacity to manifest dreams that his whole career has centred around.
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