“The cinema is truth 24 times per second,” according to Jean-Luc Godard. And while The Fabelmans (12A) may not be the unvarnished truth of Steven Spielberg’s formative years, it’s certainly a cinematic portrait of the artist as a young man.
The story opens in 1952 with young Sammy Fabelman (Mateo Zoryan) being taken to see his first movie, Cecil B. DeMille’s , by his parents Mitzi (Michelle Williams) and Burt (Paul Dano).
Traumatised by an on-screen train crash, Sammy learns to control his fears by using his father’s cine-camera to repeatedly film his toy train crashing. His father, a computer engineer, isn’t impressed, but his mother, a concert pianist, encourages Sammy to pursue his creative dream.
Written by Tony Kushner and directed by Spielberg himself, — the family name is itself evocative of storytelling and mythmaking — centres on the young filmmaker, and particularly his teenage years, when Sammy (now played by Gabriel LaBelle) displays a precocious talent as he directs his friends and classmates in a variety of inventively crafted films.
As the title suggests, however, the story embraces the wider family, with Michelle Williams in superb form as the gifted but emotionally fragile Mitzi, whose relationship with her son is fractured when he begins to suspect she is having an affair with Burt’s best friend Bennie (Seth Rogen), while Judd Hirsch contributes a memorable cameo as Sammy’s maverick uncle Boris, an irrepressible spirit who simultaneously terrifies and inspires the teenage Sammy.
To his credit, Spielberg nowhere gilds the lily: where this might easily have descended into self-hagiography, the Fabelman family, and most notably the ambitious Sammy himself, are fascinating but flawed, a fractious and quarrelsome brood whose conflicts result in a very satisfying drama.