The Fabelmans (2022)

By his own admission, A good chunk of Steven Spielberg’s directorial work has always been analogous to his real-life experiences. A keen observer will immediately find repeating patterns in stories he ends up attracted to, from E.T. to War of the Worlds and beyond. He’s been consistently coming back to revisit themes of broken families, absentee parents etc., especially visible in those rare movies he had a hand in writing, such us Close Encounters of the Third Kind or A.I.  

However, Spielberg has managed to avoid indulging in formally exploring his autobiography, even though he had been carrying this idea in his soul for over two decades and allegedly refused to commit to sharing his family’s history with the entire world – which would always be the case, given the simple fact he remains the most successful filmmaker in history – because he worried it could hurt the feelings of those whose stories he’d be telling alongside his own; though, it was revealed that he has had his parents’ blessing for a while anyway.  

Therefore, with the help of Tony Kushner, with whom he worked on Munich, Lincoln and a few other projects, Spielberg finally decided to commit his life story to the screen, albeit indirectly. The Fabelmans is not exactly an autobiographical record of Spielberg’s life experiences, because for the purposes of telling this story the filmmakers choose to mask the identity of everyone involved by giving them a fake name of the titular Fabelmans. However, this isn’t done to obscure reality or to pretend in front of the world that the movie is about someone else entirely, but rather it is to imbue the movie with an atmosphere of elevated magical realism, without which any autobiographical effort on behalf of Steven Spielberg would have simply been either impossible, completely devoid of personality, or emotionally bankrupt.  

Hence, The Fabelmans is an autobiopic-adjacent fairy tale. In fact, and I would like to ask you to pardon my cheek for a brief second, it is clearly as day the movie doesn’t aspire to describing any form of tangible reality because it begins with an assertion that The Greatest Show on Earth is a good movie. Granted, little Stevie Spielberg – oh, Pardon! Sammy Fabelman (portrayed by Mateo Zoryan Francis DeFord and later Gabriel LaBelle) – was probably enamoured with it and in all fairness, I would have been as well, had it been the first thing I ever saw in the cinema, and had I been born in 1946 just like Spielberg. In any case, Sammy loved this movie so much he felt compelled to re-live one of its scenes, the big train crash set piece, and the only way he could accomplish that was with the use of his father’s 8mm camera and his brand-new train set.  

And that’s how a star was born.  

From there Spielberg walks us through the vagaries of his upbringing. From the many influences his family members had on his artistic development, to his father’s (Paul Dano) professional drive forcing the family to pack up and move to some new sunny uplands every few years, and his experiences making short movies with his buddies. Finally – and most crucially – Spielberg recounts the relationship with his mother (Michelle Williams), whose emotional entrapment in her workaday marriage combined with dreams of pursuing an artistic career, all filtered through the pain of her unrequited love for the family friend Bennie (Seth Rogen) became a touchstone for Steven Spielberg’s most astutely personal pieces of filmmaking.  

In fact, this latter point is the very crux of the film itself as it both informs the development of Sammy’s character, motivates his decisions to pursue filmmaking as a career that would take him to the top of the world, as we all know, and most interestingly serves as a decoding machine for us to filter out autobiographical elements from Spielberg’s movies. However, it is perhaps the most informative to see large parts of The Fabelmans as a companion piece to Close Encounters of the Third Kind and A.I., even though the latter was a project which dropped into his lap serendipitously. Seen this way, Spielberg denudes all those demons he held close to his chest for decades and which he only occasionally allowed to make brief appearances in some movies he made. But it is quite frankly undeniable that his mother was the basis for Roy Neary in Close Encounters, a man trapped in the mundanity of life, yearning for something more, and completely incapable of becoming happy without abandoning his family.  

What is most interesting, though, is that Spielberg never succumbs to a veritable temptation to process his own long withheld regrets and traumas in public. Just like Sammy, who learns about his mother’s darkest secrets thanks to the magic of filmmaking and the arduous process of editing and then takes it upon himself to carry this knowledge like a burden to make sure his family would stay intact, Spielberg films Michelle Williams in a similarly respectful way, as though to preserve her memory, smooth out the roughness of their relationship and transform her into a real-life equivalent of Peter Pan. In a way, this entire movie could focus just on this one aspect of Spielberg’s upbringing, and it would have been more than enough to carry out its mission because this is where the magic of The Fabelmans truly resides.  

This intricate psychology of a mother-son relationship, the hardship of being trapped in a life you didn’t choose and processing one’s pain by way of escapism is what ended up defining Spielberg’s entire filmmaking career. In addition to informing a whole legion of characters and substories to which he would gravitate in such movies as E.T., War of the Worlds, Hook, Always, A.I. and many more, Sammy Fabelman’s unique tether to his mother and how her decisions impacted on his life are what makes The Fabelmans a deciphering machine. Sure, we do learn quite a few things about Spielberg’s process as we watch him get into an actor’s head or by manipulating reality by way of cinema when he is asked to shoot a day at the beach for his high school – and it is all instrumental to our understanding of the man’s unmatched genius – but in the end, this is a movie about a boy and his mum. And a Spielberg movie about a such a delicate relationship must be appropriately Spielbergian.  

And it is.  

Thus, it is almost inappropriate to criticize The Fabelmans for its familiar schmaltziness. Agreed, over the years, Spielberg has turned into a big softie, and we will probably never see another Saving Private Ryan or Munich come out of his loins. But if there’s a time and a place for Spielbergian sentimentality, it is most assuredly in a movie that is start-to-finish pervasively personal. So, I don’t mind these indulgences. In fact, I cherish the fact Spielberg could linger indulgently on certain shots, film Michelle Williams in slow motion as she danced like a full-size Tinkerbell, or how he paid attention to such precise memories as the clicking of his mother’s fingernails on the piano keyboard, which drove both his father and Bennie up the wall. That’s because the mission of The Fabelmans isn’t to become The Greatest Show on Earth, but rather to explain why this young scrawny kid took it upon himself to make movies like The Greatest Show on Earth (only better) using nothing but his own recollections, memories and projections.  

The Fabelmans is a poem about the power of escapism recited from its periphery by Walt Whitman of escapism. Spielberg uses this opportunity – perhaps one of the last opportunities in his career, if you think about his age – to tell us something important about the magic of cinema. Not by how this magic is conjured up. But how this magic, when conjured, imbues the conjurer with the power to change people’s lives. The Fabelmans is a “Handbook of Magical Realism” written in a language accessible to all.  

This completely jargon-free exploration of how one of the greatest Hollywood directors made his start into life told through a fairy tale filter is the best approximation of how the very idea of magical realism is reduced to practice and how it works without the filmmaker ever having to sit down and explain its mechanics. Spielberg teaches by doing and his teachings will reach those willing to side-line their own preconceptions about Spielbergian sentimentality and open their souls to the earnestness oozing out of the screen. And if you last until the very end, you might learn a thing or two about how to frame shots to make them interesting from another juggernaut director playing the role of a yet-another-juggernaut-director.  

However, it goes without saying that the movie should come with a health warning advising diabetics to steer clear. The Fabelmans may be completely and openly accessible to people of all ages and walks of life, but hard-core cynics may find it too saccharine to swallow, or they may slip into a coma halfway through the screening. So, if you shudder at the sound of John Williams’ music, or Janusz Kaminski’s misty lighting, I advise to look elsewhere. This is escapism by proxy and the closest thing we could probably get to Cinema Paradiso in the current climate.  


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