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The Fabelmans movie review: Reeling in the years of Steven Spielberg’s turbulent childhood

Also reviewed this week: All The Beauty And The Bloodshed and Unwelcome

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Gabriel LaBelle as a young Steven Spielberg in The Fabelmans

Gabriel LaBelle as a young Steven Spielberg in The Fabelmans

Nan Goldin protests against big pharma

Nan Goldin protests against big pharma

Hannah John-Kamen in Unwelcome

Hannah John-Kamen in Unwelcome

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Gabriel LaBelle as a young Steven Spielberg in The Fabelmans

It’s enough to make you despair. While Avatar: The Way Of Water, by some distance the most tedious film I was forced to endure in 2022, has grossed $2bn and counting, The Fabelmans, which opened in the US a few months back, has thus far failed to recoup its modest $40m budget.

What does it all mean?

Are audiences getting dimmer, or have decades-long abuse of video games and brainless blockbusters left us constitutionally incapable of watching a grown-up drama?

The Fabelmans has been called “Spielberg’s masterpiece”, a slightly perplexing term as it implies he hasn’t made a good handful of others. It is, however, exceedingly good.

Even at his most bombastic, Spielberg has always made personal films — E.T. was inspired by his parents’ divorce, Close Encounters by a meteor shower he watched with his father as a boy. The Fabelmans, however, takes those intimate themes to another level, as it dramatises Spielberg’s own childhood, and his parents’ loving but fraught dynamic.

In a magnificent opening sequence, Sammy Fabelman (Mateo Zoryan Francis-DeFord) is taken to the cinema for the first time by his parents Mitzi (Michelle Williams) and Burt (Paul Dano). It’s 1952 and top of the bill is Cecil B. DeMille’s The Greatest Show On Earth, a rousing Technicolor epic set in a circus.

Young Sammy is simultaneously compelled and terrified by a scene in which a speeding train crashes.

He’s haunted by the image and the only way he can control his anxiety about it is to borrow his dad’s 8mm camera and use his model railway to recreate the scene. A film-maker is born.

Surrounded by his parents and three sisters, Sammy’s world is reassuringly small. They live in Haddon, New Jersey, where Burt Fabelman works as an electrical engineer; his best friend and colleague Bennie Loewy (Seth Rogen) often comes to dinner.

An affable joker, Bennie encourages Sammy and his sisters to call him uncle, and finds a special place in the family’s hearts. Most particularly, Mitzi’s.

In 1957, the Fabelmans move to Phoenix, Arizona, where Burt has found a new job in General Electric’s computer department. Bennie goes with them, and on a camping trip, Sammy’s ever whirring movie camera captures an inconvenient truth: Bennie and Mitzi may be in love.

The emotional upheaval caused by this discovery will haunt Sammy’s teenage years: played as an adolescent by Gabriel LaBelle, he becomes first infuriated by his mother’s passionate spontaneity, then by his father’s stubborn passivity.

Burt, a man of reason, seems to believe you can think your way through anything; Mitzi, an artist, a former concert pianist, insists on the primacy of the life force, emotion.

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Their schism will cause great pain for themselves and their children, but help make Sammy the great, empathetic filmmaker he is to become.

Growing up, the camera will become Sammy’s weapon, his means of maintaining a distance between himself and the chaos of life. When he’s bullied by all-American golden boys at a new school in California, Sammy gets his revenge by revealing their vacuousness in a graduation film. 

In a wonderful scene late on, Sammy gets to meet legendary director John Ford (David Lynch), just back from a boozy lunch and still bearing the lipstick marks of an admirer.

With terrifying gruffness, Ford tells the boy that a high horizon in a shot is interesting, as is a low one — but a horizon in the middle is “boring as sh*t”. Sound advice, though the kid will scarcely need it.

With his usual mastery of pace and storytelling, Spielberg handles all of this quite beautifully, helped by wonderful performances from his ensemble cast, particularly Michelle Williams, whose Mitzi quivers with an excess of presentness, and LaBelle, a ringer for the young Steven.

The Fabelmans is a treat for anyone remotely interested in cinema, and helps explain why its director became possibly the pre-eminent force in late 20th century American cinema. Go see it, and help Spielberg recoup his budget.

Rating: Five stars

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Nan Goldin protests against big pharma

Nan Goldin protests against big pharma

Nan Goldin protests against big pharma

All The Beauty And The Bloodshed (18, 113mins)

Laura Poitras’ documentary intriguingly blends the personal and political in charting the life of photographer Nan Goldin.

Fearlessly honest, Goldin’s work has been compared to Diane Arbus, and hangs in the permanent displays of many galleries.

But as Goldin was appalled to discover, many of those galleries accepted huge donations off the Sackler family, purveyors of Oxycontin, an addictive opiate that has destroyed many lives.

Goldin became addicted to ‘oxy’ herself after being prescribed it, and here we see her furiously organise demonstrations and gallery sit-ins to protest against the Sackler family’s ‘reputation laundering’.

But the documentary is also very personal, and its most touching moments are when Goldin talks about her older sister, Barbara, who shielded Nan from their demanding and repressive parents.

When Nan was 11, Barbara killed herself by laying down on a railway track after her parents had thwarted her sexual rebelliousness by committing her to a mental hospital. 

Rating: Four stars

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Hannah John-Kamen in Unwelcome

Hannah John-Kamen in Unwelcome

Hannah John-Kamen in Unwelcome

Unwelcome (18, 104mins)

Hard to know where to begin with this one. Young couple Maya (Hannah John-Kamen) and Jamie (Douglas Booth) are celebrating their first pregnancy when their London flat is broken into by three maniacs, who beat the tar out of them.

By happy chance, however, Jamie finds out that his Irish auntie has died, and left him her charming country home.

Off to old sod then, where the couple are welcomed with open arms by hysterically friendly locals, who may be in the pay of Tourism Ireland.

But there are problems: the local builder (Colm Meaney), whom Jamie hires to fix the roof, turns out to be the head of a family of leering sociopaths.

And in the woods behind their house lurk little people, or leprechauns, who creep around tittering in the dead of night and have developed a taste for human flesh.

Sounds safer in London. Unwelcome’s director Jon Wright has a track record in comic horror, including the passable 2012 film Grabbers, but will win few friends on Erin’s Isle with this crass and ghastly item of paddywhackery, which concludes in an orgy of murder and disembowelment. Bad fairies. 

Rating: One star


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