Close encounters

Mick Ferris
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The Fabelmans (12A, 151 minutes)

One of the issues of describing a film as semi autobiographical is that one is left wondering which bits are the truth and how much is, let’s call it artistic licence.

When the subject matter turns out to be based on the childhood of the film’s director Steven Spielberg, his family and the catalyst for his obsession with becoming a film maker, then the two and a half hours running time, along with the inevitable Oscar noms, begins to look more like an engineered conceit, awards bait, rather than first and foremost a piece of entertainment.

Spielberg has been somewhat stung by poor box office figures in the US – how dare they not flock to see a dramatisation of his formative years – but you either make a film for, art houses, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and the Hollywood Foreign Press or you cater to the masses who will only spend their hard earned cash on CGI-heavy fantasy like Tom Cruise in a fighter jet.

He’s done both in his time and this definitely belongs in the former group with a story that has as much to do with his chalk and cheese parents’ marriage as it does the creator of ET’s journey through adolescence.

Sammy Fabelman’s introduction to cinema comes on a trip with his parents to see Cecil B DeMille’s classic The Greatest Show On Earth and it’s the train crash scene that triggers a passion that has lasted a lifetime, even though we only see it up to 1964, by which time the family has moved from Arizona to California to accommodate his father’s career as a computer engineer.

Meanwhile, his eccentric, I would say borderline bipolar, mother, who had given up on her hopes of being a concert pianist to bring up Sammy and his three sisters, encourages her son’s aspirations to be a film director while slowly unravelling.

Sammy’s experiments behind a camera eventually reveal the real reason for his mother’s conflicted feelings.

When you’re Steven Spielberg casting actors to play your parents you start at the top and work down, but Paul Dano, the finest actor of his generation, is stuck in second gear as well meaning genius dad Burt.

Meanwhile, Academy favourite Michelle Williams has slightly more to work with as free spirited mum Mitzi.

There are also some notable supporting roles with Seth Rogan in a rare straight role as family friend, not a real uncle Benny, Oscar nominated Judd Hirsch in a scene stealing (or should that be chewing) turn as real great uncle Boris and a late cameo I won’t reveal (no spoilers).

Gabriel LaBelle meanwhile puts in a multi-layered turn as the teenage Sammy.

The Fabelmans is OK, but that’s all. It’s certainly not up there with the director’s best and despite some lovely moments I’m puzzled how it has made it into the nominations for best picture, although I have a sneaking feeling that the academy’s affection for Spielberg and the autobiographical nature of the film may tip the scales in its favour come March 13.

RATING: 6/10


Mick Ferris

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