The Fabelmans feels emotionally raw like little else Spielberg has made.
Damn near every Steven Spielberg movie, in one sense or another, is about the power and the madness of making movies. So that immediately takes some wind out of the sails of The Fabelmans, Spielberg’s big-swing autobiographical retelling of a youth spent enthralled to pictures projected on a screen and celluloid fed through a Mansfield 8mm film editor. One more cause for concern: the way that Spielberg has used his movies to represent his philosophy on filmmaking, in the past, has sometimes been off-putting. Take, as an obvious example, Roy Neary in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and how his craven need to replicate the pictures in his head makes him drive away his wife and children, all for the sake of some higher calling.
Spielberg doesn’t really render any kind of overt judgment of Roy’s choice to abandon his family for a life of dreams in space, which could fairly be termed “problematic” in the critical parlance of today. But it’s worth noting two things here, the first being that “problematic” is not synonymous with bad art — that cinema, as well as literature, is filled with characters whose moral choices or personal ethics don’t align with ours, but to whom our exposure allows us a vital means to understanding a broader range of human psychology and behavior, and in turn a better understanding of ourselves. The other point is that, with The Fabelmans, Spielberg isn’t filtering his very specific, personally held view on the subject of filmmaking through the metaphoric lens of a hunter and shark or of a Big Friendly Giant delivering dreams.
With The Fabelmans, Spielberg drills down on his thoughts and feelings about art, the people who make it, and the people who are made to suffer because of it. The line that everyone will take away from it, because it’s more or less a perfect nugget of Tony Kushner writing, is the one the visiting Uncle Boris (Judd Hirsch) says to a petrified (and riveted) young Stevey — I mean, Sammy — Fabelman (Gabriel LaBelle): “Family, art — it’ll tear you in two!” (You have to see Hirsch deliver the line, with his brutish body language, to get the full effect.) Spielberg is smart and savvy enough to take that sentiment and extend the definition of “art” to whatever the soul wants, and how willing an individual is to sacrifice others in pursuing it. Not for nothing, multiple people call each other “selfish” or “self-involved” in The Fabelmans, and they mean it. More than almost anything, to my mind, this is a film about the failures of individuals, including its creator.
The emotional arc of Spielberg surrogate Sammy is obviously important to this story, but the best stuff here tends to revolve around Mitzi Fabelman (Michelle Williams), a character based, of course, on Spielberg’s mom. Williams is just about as terrific as she’s ever been, even if you’re understandably skeptical of her playing Jewish — she digs so deeply, and heartbreakingly, into the emotional turmoil of a woman whose fervent desire to be a good mother to her children is gradually and inescapably put in conflict with the unfulfilled yearnings that tug at her heart.
For his part, Spielberg finds enormously affecting ways to reexamine his relationship with his mother, unsurprisingly through film: Sammy’s realization that Mitzi has feelings for a man other than his father, Uncle Bennie (Seth Rogen), comes to him watching footage from a family camping trip, running it back through his Mansfield, playing it over and over. This form of filmic masochism is an extension of the one a younger Sammy (Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord) had engaged in with his mother — recreating the train crash sequence that scared him so much from Cecil B. Demille’s The Greatest Show on Earth. Mitzi remarks to Sammy’s father, Burt (Paul Dano), that filming the crash is about giving him a sense of “control.” But Sammy’s encounter with the footage of his mom and his uncle comes to mean the exact opposite — and his loss of control causes him, for a time, to put away his camera and reject his passion.
The idea of the boy trying to control the collision of his toy trains on a track is so intensely Spielbergian; it informs those times in his films when the impulse for a clean resolution has derailed him from following through on more ambitious narrative visions (as in the last 30 minutes of A.I. Artificial Intelligence). In The Fabelmans, though, there’s a catharsis in seeing Spielberg’s attempt at bringing order to his memories and relationships with family and then ultimately allowing some acceptance of the things that he can’t resolve on screen.
That said, there are several brilliant moments in The Fabelmans that do serve as meaningful critical reevaluations of film and its capacity to capture the lived experience of individuals. One scene involves Burt and Mitzi announcing to Sammy and his two sisters that they’re getting a divorce. At first, the swells of John Williams’s score and cinematographer Janusz Kamiński’s florid camerawork seem like an over-aestheticization of the moment. But then, suddenly, in the mirror behind his parents, Sammy appears holding his 16mm camera, gazing at the imaginary image of himself filming his parents, in the midst of this personal and wrenching moment, with a mix of confusion and disgust. The other moment likewise has to do with how cinema plays with our own perception of reality, and involves an emotionally insecure bully (Sam Rechner) breaking down in tears at the mere sight of his idealized self in one of Sammy’s movies.
The Fabelmans never asks you to accept the sacrifices that Sammy Fabelman makes — or that we imagine he will make, to pursue a career as a filmmaker — as the path of righteousness. Instead, this is a film that means to present to us Spielberg’s truth, an idiosyncratic and personal one, and with it an effort to make amends, to forgive, and to heal the old wounds of his past as best as his art will allow. Grief is a constant of so many of Spielberg’s films, and while so too is a characteristically buoyant craft which can’t help but leaven some of this film’s weightier feelings, in its best moments, The Fabelmans feels emotionally raw like little else this director has made.
Originally published as part of TIFF 2022 — Dispatch 2.