By: Jolie Featherstone
Winner of the 2022 TIFF People’s Choice Award and one of the most anticipated films of the year, The Fabelmans gives us a peek-behind-the-curtain…er, camera of one of the most beloved director’s of all time: Mr. Steven Spielberg.
Steven Spielberg needs no introduction. He has directed industry – and generation – defining films. He is a living beacon in Hollywood history. Yet, after a career full of awards and accolades, he considers this film his first “coming-of-age” film and it is based on his own life.
The Fabelmans takes us on a journey through Spielberg’s childhood. We walk alongside Sammy Fabelman (representing Steven Spielberg) from seeing his first movie in a theater through to his early adult years pounding the pavement and the post box in search of a job in the movie business.
Sammy Fabelman (Gabriel LaBelle) is an anxious young boy. When his parents take him to see The Greatest Show on Earth in the theatre, he is both shocked and awed by the train crash scene. From this first moment, we see the dichotomous, but loving, dynamic between his parents. His parents Burt Fabelman (aka Arnold Spielberg, played by Paul Dano) and Mitzi Fabelman (aka Leah Adler, played by Michelle Williams) work together to assuage Sammy’s nerves before going into the theater. Burt explains how the projection of film works; how our brains perceive static images shown in rapid succession as a moving picture. Leah breathlessly tells Sammy that “movies are dreams you never forget.” Of course, they are both correct. Movies are a beautiful blend of art and science, mechanics and magic.
After that fateful night, Sammy is enthralled by capturing scenes on film. His passion is fervent and engulfing. As he grows into his teenage years, his film creations become more elaborate. He is lovingly supported in this passion with his entire family and friend circle joining him on his quests to capture stories on film.
However, as is part of coming of age, Sammy not only starts to discover more about himself, he also becomes more aware of his parents as humans. Flawed, messy, beautiful humans; not pillars of complete morality, authority, or linearity. His Mom, Mitzi, is a brilliant pianist who feels restless in her life of domesticity, especially with such an engineering-minded husband like Burt. Burt does his best to be a loving husband and father, while also pursuing his own goals at work. After a fateful family camping trip, Sammy begins to see the fractures in his parents’ relationship and the complexities of intimacy. Burdened by this discovery, Sammy grapples with accepting his family as they are. Following a death in the family, an estranged Uncle (brilliantly portrayed by Judd Hirsch) comes to visit. He is a harbinger. He falls into the “artist” side of the family and tells Sammy a hard truth: to completely give yourself over to your art, it comes at a cost. Part of that price is your family. Though startled and upset by his Uncle’s brash proclamations and erratic bravado, it gets Sammy thinking. There is truth in his Uncle’s words. Life, like family, is not as cleanly cut as we may sometimes wish it would be.
After several moves due to his father’s work, Sammy ends up attending high school in California where he’s singled out and mercilessly bullied for being Jewish. Sammy struggles with abuse and alienation. His mother’s spirit cracks with grief, loss, guilt, and uncertainty. His father starts to feel the strain under the weight of his family’s wants and needs, and meeting his own career goals. It becomes a time of growth and rebirth – not only for Sammy, but for his family.
The Fabelmans is Steven Spielberg’s ode to cinema, family, and growing up. It is one of the most overtly personal films we’ve seen from him. In this article, he shares how his parents repeatedly asked him when he’s going to tell their story. The film is a love letter to movies: the communities and teams that make them, and the stories they tell us about the world. Cinema is infused with our thoughts and lives. Cinema is how we see, hear, and feel the world. Cinema can be life-defining and world-view-founding. The Fabelmans states this fact with tender gratitude.
The stories we tell about ourselves, our families, our history are told in our own voices, informed by our own biases, packaged in our know-how. Part of coming of age is recognizing and allowing for the understanding that the stories we have told of ourselves or of our families are entirely informed by our own lens. Our wishes, our fears, our hurts, our comforts, our love.
When Sammy makes an end-of-year movie for his graduating high school class, a popular Jock who bullied Sammy throughout the year is disturbed by how he is portrayed in Sammy’s film. Despite being personally wretched to Sammy, he is portrayed in the film like a Golden God; an All-American Hero; a champion. When he pleads with Sammy to tell him why he did that, Sammy can’t give him a clear answer. Cinema is building worlds with pieces of reflections from our own lived experiences. There is a reason why archetypes exist: heroes, villains, sought-after-princesses. In reality, humans do not fit neatly into such defined categories, but in the context of a story these archetypes can act as a spiritual short-hand.
Spielberg’s film contains moments of raw beauty and honesty, such as Sammy’s conversation with his Uncle, and family stalwart Bennie’s goodbye gift to Sammy. These are pivotal moments in Sammy’s life that many people can relate to. Most of us have had moments of startling clarity or hard realizations thanks to people who have come into our lives with brave openness. However, the film can also be heavy-handed in its emotional beats. For example, there are moments when the swelling, emotional score can distract you from the film – lending a highly theatrical element to the film which is imbalanced with scenes of more sharp authenticity.
Gabriel LaBelle certainly had his work cut out for him portraying a global cinematic icon. He delivers a strong performance blending charm, stubbornness, vulnerability, creativity, fear, and warmth. From being cocksure of himself and his talent, to wavering with the rush of ambition and anxiety as a young adult trying to find his way, LaBelle keeps us engaged and attached to this family.
Michelle Williams and Paul Dano also deliver strong performances as the Fabelmans: two spouses who deeply love and admire each other, but have perhaps grown apart from each other. Seth Rogen also shines as Bennie, Burt’s colleague and close family friend. He takes a character who would have been very easy to dislike and made him lovable.
It must be mentioned that David Lynch makes a pitch-perfect cameo as John Ford. The film documents Spielberg’s real-life meeting with John Ford. Spielberg has said that the scene was verbatim – no more and no less than what Ford said to him in their brief meeting, right down to the lipstick kisses strewn all over Ford’s weary face.
Lovers of Spielberg and Hollywood cinema are sure to enjoy this uplifting, yet bittersweet, love letter to cinema and family. I would encourage you to follow up your viewing of The Fabelmans with Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell. Cinema, as Spielberg posits in The Fabelmans, is how we remember things. When we think of past experiences, we conjure them like movies in our head. Dreams that you never forget.
Note: If you are interested, the New York Times published an article to discuss the facts of The Fabelmans. You can read it here.
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Jolie Featherstone: @TOFilmFiles