As a director who has made countless childhoods, it’s about time Steven Spielberg got to make his own. The 76-year-old is behind some of the most iconic films of all time, spanning countless genres over his six decades in the industry – but as The Fabelmans shows, albeit in a fictionalised form, his love of filmmaking far predates his professional career.

It’s 1952, and the young Sammy Fabelman (Mateo Zoryan Francis-DeFord) is taken to the cinema for the first time by his parents Burt (Paul Dano) and Mitzi (Michelle Williams) to see The Greatest Show on Earth. At first, he’s suspicious and protests: ‘The people are gigantic!’ His father, an electrical engineer and ever the pragmatist, explains that people simply appear big on the screen due to the ‘big bright light’ of the projector, which strings together a series of still images to produce the illusion of movement. His mother, with childlike wonderment, simply says ‘they’re like dreams.’ 

It’s here that Sammy, as Spielberg’s alter-ego, begins his adventure. Astounded by a train crash sequence in the film, he is compelled to recreate the spectacle with his model train set, as he embarks on his journey to cinematic greatness. The train as a motif has strong connotations with the history of cinema. The Lumière brothers captured the arrival of one at the La Ciotat Station in 1895 – allegedly causing its first audience to shriek with horror as it hurtled towards them – and the climax of Buster Keaton’s The General (1924) famously depicts the dramatic collapse of a railway bridge over a river in a classic example of early but still impressive spectacle. The train also has sentimental value in Spielberg’s own career, featuring in one of my personal favourite Spielberg set pieces: the boy scout sequence from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

The Fabelmans is unavoidably a love letter to cinema. As Spielberg remarks in the introductory clip that plays before the film, the communal experience of watching a movie is something to celebrate. After the struggles of the pandemic for the industry, I think it’s no coincidence that there are three such love letters in cinemas at the moment. But while Babylon, Empire of Light, and The Fabelmans all rage against the dying of the projector light, Spielberg’s film manages to accomplish far more than the other two can in its sheer simplicity and the earnestness of its approach. 

Is cinema about escapism, as Babylon declares? It’s not so simple for Spielberg. While Babylon offsets its extremity with the occasional line or shot championing the immortalising ‘magic of the movies’, The Fabelmans draws us right in to reveal the tactile, personal value of cinema. It’s about reliving, reexperiencing, remembering. From the opening scenes involving young Sammy’s obsession with the train crash, to the wonderfully rendered sequences of his amateur efforts with his fellow boy scouts that particularly resonated with my own experiences of mucking about with my friends and a camcorder in the woods, filming, and particularly editing, become means of curating the past and crafting one’s own story. 

Spielberg walks us through his adolescence with a potent sensuousness, as Sammy (played by Gabriel LaBelle for the majority of the film) runs his hands along strips of celluloid, clipping and splicing in his editing suite, throwing handfuls of dust in the shooting of his big war picture, and letting the light of the projector dance across his eyes. As Mitzi practises a piece for a televised piano recital, we zone in on the tapping of her fingernails on the keys, turning the instrument into a ‘typewriter’, as Bennie (Seth Rogen) remarks. It’s details like these, incidental, unintellectual – much like the unusually subtle score by John Williams – that make for such an intimate experience. 

It’s not all so cosy in the blissful suburbia, however. A common criticism of Spielberg has been his sentimentality and optimism – Stanley Kubrick once remarked that Schindler’s List is a film about ‘success’, prioritising those who survived the Holocaust over the many that didn’t. However, in The Fabelmans Spielberg doesn’t hold back from the more complicated elements of his own history. In the high school portion of the film no punches are pulled (quite literally) in depicting the antisemitic bullying he experienced, with LaBelle really coming into his own when out of the shadows of Williams and Dano. 

Speaking of the lead adults, the gradual dissolution of their marriage is handled with delicacy and humanity. Sammy learns of his mother’s affair with Bennie (his father’s best friend) while editing a montage of a family holiday, producing a separate B-reel tape of clandestine kisses and embraces reminiscent of Cinema Paradiso’s iconic end scene; Fabelman and Spielberg confront this formative experience through film. The scene where his mother is shown this tape is perhaps one of the most affecting in Spielberg’s oeuvre, with a single shot capturing Williams’ face turning from faint joy to deep shame at the sight of her forbidden love caught on film. There are outbursts, arguments, and even a pet monkey that tears up the living room of their rental home – named after Bennie the homewrecker, no less – as the Fabelmans try to make sense of their increasingly complicated lives. But in capturing the fluctuations of this family never does the film demand anything of its audience that it doesn’t deserve, nor does Spielberg, who has evidently had decades to process his story, ever resort to simply picking sides. 

This is a more sensitive Spielberg than we’ve seen before. For a man who knows how to work with noise and spectacle, he demonstrates his mastery of subtlety and stillness in The Fabelmans, qualities that are just as awe-inspiringly cinematic as the most bombastically escapist.