“We are inescapably products of our upbringing, The Fabelmans reminds us, and it does so in a way that’s both sweetly sincere and mightily assertive.”
by Ken Bakely
Autobiographical movies can be extremely prickly territory. What is important to the auteur is not necessarily what’s interesting to the audience, specifically when the scope of the story is so myopic that we’re meant to view it solely through the eyes of its creator, as if their perspective is the only possible one. But Steven Spielberg’s The Fabelmans is too wise and knowing to fall into these narrow boundaries. On one level, it is about a very thinly veiled version of Spielberg’s life from grade school to early adulthood. His protagonist, Sam Fabelman (Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord in his first years, Gabriel LaBelle afterward), moves with his family from New Jersey to the Sun Belt suburbs – first Phoenix, then northern California – after his engineer father, Burt (Paul Dano), is relocated for work, and by the time Sam graduates high school, his father and mother, Mitzi (Michelle Williams) are divorcing. These are all facts which align with Spielberg’s life precisely. In addition, Sam will also fall in love with filmmaking after his parents take him to see The Greatest Show on Earth in 1952, when he is six. Though many hardships follow – from sudden moves across the country, to family strains, to the antisemitic bullying he faces as the only Jewish student at his high school – and there are times where he is dissuaded from this track for a while, he will return. From then on, he will make movies on an 8mm camera to earn his photography badge in Scouting. He will make movies with his friends and family, and he will make movies for the sheer love of making them.
But it’s not merely a movie about filmmaking. Spielberg recognizes that the importance of a story like this, so closely aligned with memory and the act of remembrance, is uncovering the importance of each moment. The Fabelmans is about piecing together a mosaic of life and the realization that sometimes – often, really – the most important things that happen to us can only be understood retroactively. There is a marvelous moment in the middle of the movie, when Sam is visited by Boris (Judd Hirsch), his great-uncle who has lived his life in the circus. Boris gives an amusing and passionate speech to Sam about art and family and the complex relation between the two. In one sense, it could seem a hackish way to distill the central internal conflict of the movie’s main “subjects” – but in another, it’s less about the conversation’s topic than it is the conversation itself. A talk with an eccentric relative? It happens. But what happens if we are in the place of Sam, looking back, as we are implied to be throughout this movie? It’s that act of discovery that gives the movie its power, which shines a light on the encounters, the ideas, the triumphs, and the hardships that, alike, form what make us.
We are inescapably products of our upbringing, The Fabelmans reminds us, and it does so in a way that’s both sweetly sincere and mightily assertive. The relationship between Sam and his parents, particularly his mother, is given maybe the most heft out of anything else that happens. As he watches their marriage start to wear at the seams – from the many moves, and then from the distrust which will precede their eventual separation – Spielberg, directing from a script he co-wrote with Tony Kushner, suggests what he takes from that monologue he has given Great Uncle Boris. There is art, and there is family. Sam is greatly loved as his family gently humors his budding childhood obsessions, and the family troubles that fundamentally rock his life are, in this journey of memories, inseparable from the moments key to his budding artistry. In this, Spielberg suggests that while what hurts us and what builds us may not necessarily be the same thing, they can be very similar. In portraying these complicated dynamics, LaBelle is revelatory as the young Sam, quiet and funny and awkward in believable ways. He more than holds his own against Dano and Williams, who are in extraordinary form here. Spielberg has talked about making a movie about the era in his life when he realized his parents were also fallible human beings. Burt and Mitzi’s deep compassion and messy shortcomings are heartrendingly realized here, all at once.
That is the core of the movie. Sam grows up, Sam realizes new ideas, and in a certain abstract sense, Sam is looking back. It is rare for this to be an explicit connection, for all the rest of the movie’s direct sentiments. Instead, the movie prefers to wander with the gentle guidance of a story that generally keeps things loose in structure. There are no surprises in a formal sense; what it decides upon early on is what will happen over the following two-and-a-half hours. There are times when runtime is stretched out more than necessary, and the aesthetics of golden nostalgia are pointedly emphasized in mildly unsustainable ways for a movie of this length. In other words, The Fabelmans can stumble, getting lost in its own journeying. It might lay it on just a bit too thickly at points, as if Spielberg is concerned that we’re not getting the point here. But in fact, what really keeps the film afloat in its more aimless patches – and what lets it soar when everything’s in order – is the caring, deft, and quite often, delicately whimsical spirit that Spielberg guides his story with. He proverbially narrates with great introspection. He might be prone to the long-winded diatribes of any recollection. But Spielberg does more than idly remember. He quietly addresses us (and himself) in the present tense, pointing out the deeper meaning that time has unraveled. At first you might not notice that more reflexive quality, but it builds steadily, and then in the film’s very last shot – so note-perfect and mischievously funny – he reminds us that remembering and revising our understanding of our pasts is an active pursuit.
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