It’s like a remake of Peeping Tom only Mark grows up to be Steven Spielberg instead of a serial killer.
For his autobiographical film, Steven Spielberg has brought in heavy hitter co-writer Tony Kushner – perhaps to add some nuance and other perspectives on what are presented as anecdotes about Spielberg’s lightly-fictionalised family … showing how his young enthusiasm for movie-watching and making became a thread on which his coming of age was hung, along with a lot of drama about his parents (his siblings, not so much) which has resonated in almost all his films. As a kid, Sammy (Mateo Zoryan DeFord) is wowed by The Greatest Show on Earth and tries to recreate its great train crash with his toy train set – his father Burt (Paul Dano), a perhaps neurodivergent computer genius, disapproves of the damage to expensive items so his mother Mitzi (Michelle Williams) encourages him to use a cine-camera to preserve the stunt (which has to be done only once). This leads Sammy into filmmaking – Gabriel LaBelle takes over the role as a teen, and Sammy stages more and more ambitious western and war films with his Arizona boy scout troupe before a Blowup moment when he’s editing film of a family camping trip and realises his mother is in love with faux-uncle Bennie (Seth Rogen) … which precipitates a move to California, a brutal spell in a bullying-heavy high school movie, first love with a proselytising Christian (Chloe East) who has Jesus pinups along with other 1960s teen idols, and another use of editing to make a school beach break picture into an act of mythologising and revenge which stirs something strange in adonislike jock jerk Logan (Sam Rechner) and a nod and a wink bit where Sam swears never to tell about his nemesis’ weakness ‘unless I put it in a movie’.
A coda, after his parents’ divorce, begins the well-known Spielberg story as he gets a gofer gig on the Universal lot – which will lead to TV, Night Gallery, Duel and a career – and has a brief, pointed encounter with ‘the greatest film director of all time’, John Ford (David Lynch – inspired casting), who gives a very pithy pictorial lesson. It gets in Judd Hirsch and Jeannie Berlin as satellite Fabelmans, but the most layered work comes from Dano and Williams as a mismatched couple who unwittingly hurt each other because of their oppositional positions on science and art, which we can infer shaped the sensibility which made, say, Close Encounters of the 3rd Kind (though, oddly, this stresses Dad genres like western, war and circus and has nary a hint of Spielberg’s fantasy – outside of a toilet-paper-swathed mummy movie). Mitzi explains that Burt is a genius but often his family don’t realise it until Bennie explains things in terms they can understand – suggesting that Bennie, who gifts Sammy a camera, is the real role model for a great populist filmmaker.
It’s long and entertaining and of course episodic, with few obvious historical markers – no JFK assassination, no Sputnik (which must have resonated with SS), so much emphasis on antisemitism that no other civil rights issues are raised – and an understated, rather appealing sense of period defined by naff pop music selections (John Williams’ score cannily quotes bits of classic film scores) and retro tech porn. I was hoping for an MCU-like post-credits scene where Joan Crawford looms into the frame. Bullying creep Chad is played by an actor called Oakes Fegley (Pete from the Pete’s Dragon remake) – if you were called Oakes Fegley, would you admit it?