But there’s more to it than that, As a film maker, Spielberg has the gift of always making you care about his characters and in this film too, they make you laugh, they make you cry, they hold your attention through the story’s human drama, sadness and comedy.
We first meet Sammy (Spielberg’s alter ego) as a very young and very cute little boy, played by Mateo Zoryan. He is being taken to the cinema for the first time by his parents Burt (Paul Dano) and Mitzi (Michelle Williams), who have to explain to the frightened child that it’s not real, it’s a film. Turns out he loves the movie (The Greatest Show On Earth), particularly the train crash, which he then with the help of Mitzi, recreates using his expensive toy train set and films on his dad’s primitive movie camera, much to Burt’s annoyance. The bug has bitten
As he gets older, now played as a teenager by Gabriel LaBelle, he makes his own short films with his friends, with sly visual references here and later to films Spielberg himself will later make. He also documents family events, which is when he uncovers a disturbing fact about his family involving his parents and Burt’s best friend Uncle Benny (Seth Rogen), whom Mitzi insists Burt find a job for when the family moves to Arizona. It’s a secret which haunts his remaining adolescent years.
LaBelle is attractive and engaging as Sammy, while the adults lend strong support. Dano as Sammy’s loving but critical technologist father, convinced his son is wasting time on what is just a hobby, Williams as the artistically inclined Mitzi and Rogen as Uncle Benny. There’s also a great cameo from Judd Hirsch, as Mitzi’s colourful Uncle Boris, whose brief visit has a strong influence on Sammy.
The Fabelmans’ observance and celebration of Jewish tradition with its emphasis on the strength of family runs through the film, making the more shocking Sammy’s first experience of bullying anti semitism from the high school sports jocks when the family moves to California. Though Spielberg turns the tables on that memory with one of the best jokes in the film, while this section also features Sammy’s first serious girlfriend, a delightful comic performance by Chloe East as the fervently Christian Monica, who wanting to inspire him with Jesus as she leaps on him lasciviously.
The final treat of the film is a telling cameo from David Lynch as a certain famous film director setting Sammy on his future path. The last shot takes his advice.