When is a film biographical and when is it not? That’s the feeling you might have after seeing The Fablemans.
As a period drama that kicks off in 1950s New Jersey, Gabriel LaBelle plays Samuel “Sammy” Fabelman. Son to Paul Dano’s computer engineer father, Burt, and Michelle Williams’s frustrated pianist mother, Mitzi, Sammy is bewitched by his first cinema visit. Recreating it with his train set afterwards, it’s Mitzi who fans the flames of Sammy’s fascination. Pricking holes in the celluloid to simulate muzzle flashes on his early attempts at a western, it’s clear that Sammy has talent but he’s caught between a scientific father and an artistic mother.
For whilst his father Burt indulges Mitzi’s pleadings to support Sammy’s talent there is another hand pulling on the threads of their home life. Driving her kids towards a tornado only to break down sobbing later, it’s clear that Mitzi is trying to find words that she dare not speak. And after being stretched out across several house moves, it’s fair to say that the family arrive at a fork in the road in Northern California.
Matched with Judd Hirsch’s scene-stealing uncle Boris who correctly predicts the unfavourable choices that lie ahead of Sammy the burgeoning artist, the stardust in his bones won’t stay hidden for long.
… When is a film biographical and when is it not? That’s the feeling you might have after seeing The Fablemans.
As Gabriel LaBelle’s commendable cypher for a young Spielberg navigates high school angst and anti-semitism, it is really Michelle Williams who equally steals the eye. Caught between Seth Rogen’s Uncle Benny and Paul Dano’s earnest Burt, The Fablemans is carried by her disintegrating turn as Mitzi and LaBelle’s Spielberg-like mannerisms.
As the film runs out with a lovely cameo that I won’t risk spoiling, Spielberg’s latest is more heartwarming than heart-wrenching. Seen as either a prequel or a postscript to his impressive body of work, The Fablemans offers an early insight into the filmmaker he would later become.
Many flashes and subtle colours allude to many of Spielberg’s films in its 151 minutes, all of which makes The Fabelmans a loving companion piece whilst dealing it out some harsh rites-of-passage-like truths along the way. So, by avoiding a dogmatic retelling of his past, The Fabelmans aims at a horizon which both newcomers and fans alike can walk towards.