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The Fabelmans movie review: Steven Spielberg’s origin story is a hilarious and heart-breaking gem

From left, Paul Dano, Mateo Zoryan Francis-DeFord and Michelle Williams in The Fabelmans ( )
From left, Paul Dano, Mateo Zoryan Francis-DeFord and Michelle Williams in The Fabelmans ( )

Steven Spielberg’s latest is about secrets and unwitting spies. As well as sexism, xenophobia and the need to avoid being “boring as s**t”.

The 72-year-old directing legend is essentially telling his own origin story in The Fabelmans. But this droll drama (nominated for several Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director) is remarkably un-self-serving.

A matriarch, Mitzim dominates the proceedings, giving actress Michelle Williams (snubbed by Bafta voters, but up for a Best Actress Oscar) one of the most delicious roles of her career. How clever of the Academy members to recognise this is more than a supporting turn. Even when she’s not on-screen, Williams’ presence is strongly felt.

Jewish mother-of-four Mitzi, is married to shy, attentive Burt (Paul Dano on superb form), whose job as a computer engineer keeps uprooting the family. Wherever they go, Mitzi looks most happy when playing the piano or bantering with Burt’s breezy best friend, Bennie (Seth Rogen). Though cute as a pixie, this woman is the opposite of cutesie-pie. When her beloved mother dies, Mitzi crawls over and nuzzles the corpse.

Later, Mitzi’s film-crazy son, Sammy (Gabriel LaBelle, an excellent Spielberg mini-me) edits a home-movie and, in an ingeniously cut scene, it becomes apparent to him that Mitzi is leading a double life.

Cult actor Judd Hirsch, now 87, is Oscar nominated for his cameo as Mitzi’s uber-exuberant uncle Boris. He tells Sammy it’s important to do your own thing and not worry what your loved ones think: “Family, art – it’ll tear you in two!”

It’s a broad turn from Hirsch but Boris’ words do demonstrate the intelligence of the script. His advice doesn’t apply to Sammy (whose family are supportive of his dreams) but is hugely relevant for Mitzi, who, as a housewife, has lost the art of being herself. Over the years, Spielberg has given us many memorable female characters (Raiders’ Marion; ET’s Gertie; AI’s Monica; West Side Story’s Valentina). For me, torn-in-two Mitzi’s the best of a brilliant bunch.

In the second half, we watch the resourceful Sammy’s nascent filmmaking; staging DIY battle scenes, girding his loins, essentially, for the action spectaculars to come. Ironically, audiences who love Spielberg’s way with special effects may be put off by the fact that The Fabelmans is low-budget and CGI-free. Why, they may wonder, did their idol sign up for this project, instead of taking the reigns of Indiana Jones 5?

The fools. Spielberg has realised that fables come in all shapes and sizes. In this hilarious and heart-breaking gem, small really is beautiful.

151mins, cert 12A

In cinemas