Spielberg gets his non-union, coming-of-age equivalent in The Fabelmans

Director: Steven Spielberg Starring: Michelle Williams, Paul Dano, Gabriel LaBelle, Seth Rogan, Judd Hirsch Running Time: 151 minutes

Being a crowd pleaser can be a double-edged sword, a crowd’s capacity to be pleased not always equaled by their capacity to be sated. Steven Spielberg has known that at various times in his caree; being THE big name of blockbusters inevitably means that there is a very broad canvas for people to project onto. Spielberg is hyper successful, omnipresent, the director that your parents can name, which means that audiences have attributed many contradictory meanings to him and his work. So he’s a saccharine capitalist, a too-particular populist, he’s emotionally distant but all of his movies are about his parents’ divorce. What makes his semi-autobiographical flick The Fabelmans work so well is that it’s aware but unburdened by these expectations, and how they might inform the director exploring his own story. Spielberg and writer Tony Kushner judo throw that expectation back; ‘telling Spielberg’s story’ being less a love letter to why we make art and more often and more interestingly an expression of how to deal with how it’s received.  

The coming-of-age story starts with erstwhile Steven, Sammy Fabelman, queueing for his first trip to the cinema as a little boy with mother Mitzi (Michelle Williams, all ditzy radiance) and father Burt (Paul Dano as the dad from Hook minus the Pan). Seeing the spectacle in The Greatest Show on Earth, Sammy is enthralled, compelled even as a pre-teen to understand his own emotional reaction. Viewers getting in their feelings about trains coming at us is stitched into the fabric of cinematic history after all. He tries to recreate what he saw, when his dad gets him a camera he’s soon shooting cowboy movies with his buddies and the appointed camera man for family trips, while Mitzi encourages him, Burt only ever calls Sammy’s unnaturally good home movies a “hobby”, sticking in his son’s craw more and more as he grows up. 

The family seems idyllic, but crossing the country starts to expose cracks. Burt retreats more into his work at IBM while Mitzi, intermittently manic, spends more time with Burt’s best friend, Seth Rogan as Too Lovable Goofball Bennie. California high school and the bullying that comes with it is tough on Sammy, and the older he gets, the more his camera sees. The high school scenes are empathetic and endearing. Sammy standing up to his bullies is easy to root for and his horny Christian girlfriend is a comedic highlight. As the young adult version of Sammy, newcomer Gabriel LaBelle is charming, never getting too lost in imitating his boss, drawing from load-bearing signifiers (dorky fusiness) while still accessing raw and real emotions, his overwhelmed response to family drama and his rightly righteous indignation to experiencing antisemitism at school coming through strongly.

The teen drama side also buttresses the crumbling family angle. Even with a fictionalised family and Kushner’s screenplay to lighten the load, Spielberg is hesitant to tackle the divorce, but the hesitance is emotionally honest and admirable. The story swerves blame and neat conclusions, giving an open-ended approach and emotional confusion that shows that even a 76 year old master storyteller looking back can struggle to make sense of the deeply personal. Further still, The Fabelmans shows getting one simple answer out of a subjective medium is a losing game anyway. 

Mitzi watches a family video Sammy has carefully cut any signs of infidelity from and tells her he “really sees her”. His cruelest tormenter in school angsts that his prom highlight reel made him look too perfect in a way he can never live up to. His dad can’t see Sammy’s work as anything but a trifling aside despite the genius in it. Sammy is an earnest people pleaser, his creative compulsions part of a wider inclination that any personal problems he can run into can be and should be fixed. But do people want what he has to give, do they even understand it? Can he himself ever be satisfied with it, will people get it, will it give him what he wants? His great uncle warns him about this dilemma, Judd Hirsch kvetching to Academy Award nominated effect. But it’s another quick and incredible cameo in the film’s closing stages that give Sammy and the audience a simple and satisfying answer, one that frees the kid to go places, places we know he’ll go but which Spielberg directs us with a wry but never too knowing hand. 

Roger Ebert famously described movies as like an empathy generating machine, but movies are just pictures really. It’s the people watching them that generate the reaction all on their own, and The Fabelmans is less a love letter to the movies than one to the people that have watched his, all the way back to his backyard. Firstly the family that have shaped the stories that define him, and secondly the audience that have shared and reshaped those stories thereafter. Warm, sweet, well performed and to the point, The Fabelmans shines a light back at the man behind the director’s chair.

4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

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