The disintegration of the family runs through much of Steven Spielberg’s work, and it’s a quality that’s helped to ground his hugely popular genre fare. Consider a humorous scene in The Fabelmans, his semi-autobiographical coming-of-age drama, where the young Spielberg (or sorry, the young ‘Sammy Fabelman’) articulates the guilt his fellow Eagle-scout should draw on to improve his performance in their pet-project war film, while clearly tapping into his own (the Fabelman household isn’t as happy by this point as it once was). The youngster has been struggling to get into character, but Sammy brings him to the edge of tears. It’s a funny scene, but also a great example of the quality that raises The Fabelmans far above the status of a vanity project; no one on earth better understands why viewers have felt so attached to Spielberg’s work for so long than the man himself, and seeing him extend that introspection to his home life, not long after the passing of his parents, in such a sensitive and generous film, is touching. Many of the reasons directors make films are the same for which we go to see them, chiefly; catharsis.
This is an openly vulnerable film about, as many have put it, the mysteries of happiness, about the impossibility of being everything you wish you could be for someone else and having to find yourself somewhere in there too. That sounds heavy, but Spielberg is smart enough to know that even when we break down and are at our worst, we try not to be ugly. This is a real family, dysfunctional as most are, and no more than that; troubles linger amongst joy, and the movie is in turns funny, dramatic, melancholy, and exciting (in short well-rounded). This may be the director’s most personal film, but he’s not above ending things off on the cinematographical equivalent of winking to the audience.
The plot affixes to Sammy (Gabriel LaBelle, wonderfully wide-eyed and tremulous) as he fosters his passion for filmmaking, unfolding episodically as the family (including a set of combative sisters) moves to accommodate Burt’s work as a computer engineer (an understated Paul Dano as Dad), while mom Mitzi (the absolutely first-rate Michelle Williams) seems to grow forlorn, and supporting players enter and exit. Among them are Seth Rogen as honorary ‘uncle’ Bennie, and genuine grand-uncle Boris Schildkraut the artist and lion tamer, played by Judd Hirsch, who bulldozes his way through his plentiful lines over the course of what registers as about 30 seconds, collecting laughs with magnetic ease.
While we stray from the central unit often enough, we always return to Sammy’s shifting understanding of his parents, coming to terms with the unbridgeable gap between kids and their folks, while Spielberg clearly wrestles with the need to truly see them. This reviewer’s never been more aware that a filmmaker has the opportunity to bring someone back to life, if only a conception of them, than in this film. It is very rare that a director in the twilight of his life heading a project about their own childhood seems to still be processing it so intensely.
The technicals hardly need to be exalted, Spielberg has surrounded himself with his tremendously gifted mainstays. There’s John Williams, providing his final score for the director, whose sparse pianos and violin are like a reassuring hand on your shoulder, and of course, cinematographer Janusz Kamiński. Kamiński is most prone to flurries of creativity in Spielberg’s most expressive work (sci-fi, musicals, adventures, etc. demand a forceful visual presence), but the pair restate their ability to match a muted subject with elegant simplicity. One shot, without spoiling much, says it all: someone is painfully reminded that things had never been picture-perfect, and they hold still in close up, with their shadow cast behind them. Shadows that break hearts are rare things.
It’s doubtful that this film will take off in cinemas. A fair criticism is that the first act, establishing dynamics and unable to draw on dramatic complications with its protagonist undefined in his infancy, can be spotty, but more likely to cause consternation is the fact that large portions of modern cinemagoers (those who catch blockbusters and leave all else for streaming), being as allergic to sincerity as they are, may find themselves alienated by the manner of this expressly mid-century family unit, or put off by one too many ‘overwrought’ monologues. When someone’s home is slowly crumbling around them, or they feel totally, frighteningly exposed, people tend to be pretty forthright. We rehearse our confessions, sometimes without realising it, and then let them go.
This a first impression, but it seems The Fabelmans will reward on repeat viewings, just like any movie where the truths carry weight. By the same token, it’s too soon to say whether or not this film will join the company of Spielberg’s masterpieces (a debate already underway). He’s prone to taking big swings, uncomplicated pleas to emotion with the potential to sweep you off your feet. For this reason, some dismiss his work as sentimental, or uncritical, or whatever else, since they’ve been blinded to what’s playing out between the lines. In the days after seeing The Fabelmans, what’s between the lines takes shape in your mind, it stays with you, and there’s sure to be more to appreciate the second time round.