Few directors have had as seismic an impact on the American consciousness as Steven Spielberg. Fewer still have come around to so meaningfully analyze and deconstruct that impact. The Fabelmans is, on its surface, an autobiography. It chronicles the childhood and teen-hood of Sammy Fabelman (Gabriel LaBelle), a cinematically inclined prodigy whose family moves from New Jersey to Arizona, and eventually to California, and whose parents get divorced along the way. Spielberg poured that divorce into several early works—it grounds even his most imaginative films, like E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind—thus imbuing his grand movie mythology with the somber undercurrent of distant or absent fathers. However, The Fabelmans approaches this Spielbergian myth with a sense of mournful clarity, verging on regret.
What young Steven could not have known at the time—the real reasons for his parents’ divorce, which he perceived for many years simply as paternal abandonment—he now knows the truth about in retrospect, and can only transform into honest moving images decades later. The Fabelmans may be a wide-eyed film about family and burgeoning artistry, but it has a quiet sense of tragedy woven into its fabric, as a tale of a young man who is both Steven Spielberg, and a fable about him: someone who never existed at all.
The film begins with Sammy’s parents taking him to see Cecil B. DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth at a New Jersey theater in 1952. It was the first film Spielberg ever saw, the impact of which is captured with awe and wonder by Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord, who plays Sammy at the age of 6, and whose piercing blue eyes reflect the flickering lights of DeMille’s images. These initial scenes reflect the way DeMille’s iconic train crash sequence lodges itself in Sammy’s consciousness, until he’s driven to recreate it with toys gifted to him for Hanukkah, using his father’s Super 8mm camera. All the while, as young Sammy is lost in cinematic daydreams, Spielberg lays out the roadmap for his family drama, by introducing Sammy’s three younger sisters, his supportive mother, Mitzi (Michelle Williams), a concert pianist mother, his reserved father, Burt (Paul Dano), who once fought in World War II but now works tirelessly as a computer engineer, and his parents’ best friend Bennie Loewy (Seth Rogen), who livens up their family dinners.
LaBelle quickly takes the baton from Francis-DeFord, guiding us through Sammy’s middle and high school years, as a Boy Scout with a penchant for making DIY Westerns and war films. LaBelle notably has brown eyes, and the application of blue contact lenses doesn’t quite work as intended, but it gives his rendition of Sammy an almost otherworldly aura, which comes in especially handy when the Fabelmans make their way to California in the ’60s, and Sammy becomes the target of overt antisemitism, affording LaBelle a quiet rage that he internalizes in captivating ways. He looks, and feels, like an outsider, not only because of his ethnicity, but because of the way he sees the world.
His pristine view of Mitzi, at the start of the film, eventually becomes tainted, and he presents her as an angel fallen from grace, while searching for more complicated truths within her, as a means to find new layers to his own origin story.
Along the way, Sammy’s mother, the artist, is supportive of his creative pursuits, while his father, the scientist, considers filmmaking a mere hobby with no tangible or useful outcome. Throughout these pivotal years, the Fabelmans keep uprooting and re-rooting their children between cities, as Burt climbs the professional ladder, while also bringing Bennie with him for as long as he can. However, through Spielberg’s blocking and staging during group scenes (like when the family takes a camping trip with Bennie in tow), the director paints Burt as a crushingly lonely outsider to his own family, whose passions for engineering aren’t shared by anyone else, and whose own wife seems to find more laughter and comfort around his best friend. Sammy, ironically, doesn’t notice this himself until he’s editing together a reel of their camp vacation footage, a realization that makes the moving image feel almost destructive in its ability to reveal truth. Notably, Spielberg himself wouldn’t learn this particular truth until much later—he would spend years blaming only his father—which is perhaps why his pristine view of Mitzi, at the start of the film, eventually becomes tainted, and he presents her as an angel fallen from grace, while searching for more complicated truths within her, as a means to find new layers to his own origin story.
Sammy’s early films share their titles with Spielberg’s: The Last Gunfight and Escape to Nowhere. In moving from one to the next, the film begins collapsing the history of early cinema together, presenting Sammy’s first film against the vaudevillian music of early, carnivalesque silent cinema, but his second with sounds that are both more finessed and more personal: classical sonatas as played by his mother, reflecting the more operatic DNA of early Hollywood epics. But despite Sammy’s gusto in crafting these homemade projects, there is, at times, a lack of emotional honesty to them. His playful war story may be based on his father’s memories, and while he spins a melancholy tale of a soldier losing his battalion, he doesn’t know his father well enough—or doesn’t care to—to connect the dots between his fiction and his father losing his family.
Given Sammy’s aggressive reactions towards his mother when he begins suspecting her affair, it seems he may not yet be mature enough for the cinematic world and the real world to meaningfully collide. The film can’t help but read like self-criticism of the simplistic ways Spielberg once allowed his parents’ divorce to manifest on screen, without yet knowing the full picture.
The film can’t help but read like self-criticism of the simplistic ways Spielberg once allowed his parents’ divorce to manifest on screen, without yet knowing the full picture.
And yet, Spielberg’s cinematic expression of regret is not without beauty. There’s a reverence to the way he presents his mother and her artistry, from the way she loses herself in the piano, to the way she dances ecstatically in the woods, lit only by headlights of Bennie’s car. Janusz Kamiński’s glistening photography turns The Fabelmans into a surprising companion piece to Spielberg’s West Side Story, as a tale of light revealing the contours of his characters when they’re in motion—only instead of revealing the grandiose, light in The Fabelmans reveals the intimate. There’s nothing more touching than Sammy showing Mitzi one of his homemade films in the confines of his bedroom closet (she watches his little train movie projected on her hands; it’s like an act of prayer), and there’s also nothing more devastating than when those very confines become a space for confrontation, when Sammy presents Mitzi with filmed evidence of her infidelity.
Just as entwining these stories—of a child learning to create with his camera, and of a family falling apart—is key to telling The Fabelmans, so too is the process of untangling them. Sammy is told, by a visiting uncle at one point (Judd Hirsch in a brief but impactful role) that a kid such as himself, bitten by the creative bug, is destined to be torn between art and family. This dilemma may lie ahead for Sammy, and he stumbles while trying to navigate these worlds, but this conundrum is already firmly in Spielberg’s rearview, allowing him the learned clarity to inspect his own relationship to cinema. He already did so in a minor way in his 2018 film Ready Player One which, while often overstuffed with pop culture imagery, contains a pure expression of creative remorse, when a ghostly projection of a video game creator wonders what his life’s work was for. But here, he takes a more complicated route, often at the cost of narrative clarity. The film begins to take detours, and detours within detours, in service of symbolic statements about cinema that viewers more invested in the linear story might find alienating. And yet, Spielberg’s approach remains purposeful, despite this obfuscation.
The clarity with which Spielberg approaches most of the movie’s story all but disappears here, leaving an intentional fog as Sammy begins to deal with uneasy real-world emotions through the lens of cinema.
Most audiences have at least a rudimentary understanding of the relationship between the camera and the subject at which it gazes, and even the camera and filmmaker, as forces working in tandem to create meaning at the end of the directorial process. However, Spielberg zeroes in on the ethereal spaces between camera and subject, and between camera and the filmmaker; the unspoken emotional nature of the process itself, which translates ideas into images, and filters them through impulses and instincts. The clarity with which Spielberg approaches most of the movie’s story all but disappears here, leaving an intentional fog as Sammy begins to deal with uneasy real-world emotions through the lens of cinema, by viewing his own family’s harrowing drama at a dissociated remove. His real point of view briefly takes on the hand-held, documentarian quality of his home movies—as opposed to the careful, still construction of the rest of The Fabelmans—when things become too difficult to bear. It’s as if the camera isn’t being used to reveal truth, but to conceal it, in order to spare Sammy emotional anguish. Similarly, when Sammy is bullied severely at school, and one of his projects happens to involve capturing one of his tormentors on film, the resultant imagery is a delightfully surprising contradiction of feelings that Sammy himself can’t fully navigate: he makes his bully look heroic if it makes for a better movie.
Spielberg doesn’t go all the way and connect this distancing effect to his many films about paternal abandonment, but The Fabelmans itself fits nicely with his more recent works about nuanced and hardened, but ultimately loving fathers (like Lincoln or Catch Me If You Can), made after his real-world reconciliation with his own father. The Fabelmans, in that sense, represents every kind of Spielberg, the one aggrieved by his parents’ divorce and the one who would eventually come to terms with it, now reaching back into the past in order to, in some ways, alter how it played out, and where he originally placed the blame. Then again, Sammy is hardly “correct” in any of his childish outbursts against his mother, so The Fabelmans is far from a wishful corrective. Rather, it’s a work of intimate imagination, where every expression of unbridled awe—every “Spielberg face,” as it’s come to be known—is accompanied by lingering emotional wounds that may take years, if not decades, to heal. But Spielberg, having lived through that process, knows what lies on the other side of it, so even the most raw and vulnerable moments he creates come tinged with a unique gentleness, as if to say that while the camera can place too great a distance between filmmakers and their subjects, it has a unique way of dulling pain as well, until it’s finally ready to be confronted.
Published on November 15, 2022