Steven Spielberg has taken us all from the ’70s to the 2020s, creating several classics in each decade. We all have at least one beloved movie from him that is probably filled with nostalgia and defined a stage of our life.
At 75, Spielberg is in a self-reflective mood and, for the first time, has turned the camera on his story. Fear not, he is insistent that this is in no way a swan song, but The Fabelmans is a personal memoir.
If you’ve followed Spielberg’s career across the decades, you’re probably aware that certain themes have recurred frequently. Childhood, in a more general sense, and separation from one or both parents has been a strong motif in the likes of ET, Empire of the Sun, Hook, and AI: Artificial Intelligence.
Spielberg’s parents’ divorce has loomed large in what has made the man a cinematic legend. It’s surprising to learn that it didn’t occur until around the time he left home for college and work anyway, and not during a more vulnerable point in his childhood.
The Fabelmans is the semi-autobiographical story of Spielberg’s childhood and teen years. It is heavily based on his life, but with all the names changed. Michelle Williams and Paul Dano play the parents of Sam Fabelman – the Spielberg stand-in.
The story, of course, begins with Sammy’s first ever trip to the movies – he’s not sure if he wants to go in, it will be dark and loud, and the people will be scarily big. Sammy watches the terrifying train crash in The Greatest Show on Earth and is transformed. He immediately wants to recreate it at home.
Dano’s Burt is a television repairman and technical wizard who will become a pioneer in the computer industry. Williams’ Mitzi is an accomplished pianist, who did not have the career she should have, and is instead raising Sam and his three younger sisters.
It’s made clear that young Sammy gets his artistic side from his flighty mother and the technical curiosity in cameras, filmstock, and editing equipment from his father.
For most of the drama movie, Gabriel LaBelle plays a teenage Sammy, and the highlight of The Fabelmans is seeing the early films he makes with his boy scout buddies. He explores Westerns and war movies, clearly influenced by whatever has most recently invigorated him at his local movie palace.
We see young Spielberg (sorry, Fabelman) working out how to create effects such as sticking pinholes in the actual film reel to make flashes that invoke gunfire. He also takes home movie footage of family camping trips and the like. Burt’s work colleague and best friend ‘Uncle’ Benny (Seth Rogen) accompanies the Fabelmans everywhere, even moving from New Jersey to Phoenix with them. It is after watching his home-movie footage of a camping trip that Sammy begins to realise that his mother and Benny may be closer than he thought.
Further disruption comes when Burt gets a job with IBM in California, and the family is uprooted once more. This time Benny does not travel with them. Sammy is plunged into a High School with students who are like “giant sequoias”, and he is one of the few Jewish students.
Sammy must contend with bullies and the attentions of a Christian girl (played by a hilarious Chloe East) who has Jesus pin-ups on her wall alongside the teeny-bopper pop stars. LaBelle brilliantly portrays the strained teenage years, where he must walk a tightrope at school and try to stay under the radar while contending with a tumultuous home life.
One of The Fabelmans’s main strengths is that it’s extremely funny. There are two stand-out cameos that almost steal the whole show – Judd Hirsch as Uncle Boris, who descends on the family home after their grandmother dies. The second is the cameo by a director playing a director, which is an absolute delight.
While the cast as a whole is good (particularly LaBelle, who holds his own amongst those more experienced), Williams is the undoubted stand-out of the movie. She is tremendous as the creative spark that ignites Sammy. Her eccentricities include serving all of the family meals on paper plates with plastic forks on a paper tablecloth that gets gathered at the end of every meal.
There’s the monkey that she acquires on a whim when the family moves to California. And then there’s the dance performance she puts on in front of Uncle Benny’s headlights at the campsite. Sammy is unsure whether or not to capture this moment, his mother’s nightdress made sheer by the lights, but she is captivating.
Much of the tension in the Fabelman household is because Sammy is more like his mother than he would like to admit, and it’s a part of himself that he frequently wants to suppress. It’s the awkward, embarrassing side, the emotionally vulnerable side, but also the part of him that will one day make him a great artist. It is often too much for him to confront all of this in the form of a mother who can spin out of control and who lays bare all of the fears that he has about himself.
Considering that Spielberg could have laid certain scenes on thick here, The Fabelmans is not sentimental or mawkish. It feels celebratory – full of humour, warmth and compassion. It’s not one long therapy session in which Spielberg attempts to analyse his parents, but it is his attempt as an adult to view them as the whole, flawed people that they both were.
As kids, it is tempting to cast heroes and villains, and it can take a long time for us to see our parents in any context that is not related to them being our caregivers. To imagine them as people with dreams and desires that aren’t related to us can be a long process.
You will have your own opinions on the last decade or two of Spielberg’s career, but it’s clear that he could not have made The Fabelmans before now. He’s not the only director wrestling with their parents and their own story this year or even this festival. It takes a lot to be this open about your own life, and it’s one thing to write a memoir, but it’s quite another to project it onto a huge screen for everyone to see.
But there’s no other way that Spielberg could possibly have told this story. The manipulation and projection of images are integral to The Fabelmans, and Spielberg could only have conveyed his own life via the magic of the movies. It has been his life’s work.
The Fabelmans is not a sentimental or mawkish biopic; instead, it’s a celebration of life full of humour, warmth and compassion.