Towards the end of “The Fabelmans,” Sammy Fabelman (Gabriel LaBelle) makes a film that causes quite the stir during its premiere at prom.
The short film, about his high school’s senior ditch day, stars Logan (Sam Rechner), the most popular guy in school. Sammy glowingly highlights all the aspects of Logan that give him his popularity. His good looks, his athletic prowess, are all on display as he dominates at volleyball and handily wins a footrace on the beach. But Sammy’s film also picks up on something else. Logan’s oft hidden sensitive side unfurls through Sammy’ keen eye. There’s a girl, you see – a girl Logan’s hurt badly, and a girl he longs to win back. The audience picks up on this subtle love story, sighing forlornly as the smile slowly fades from Logan’s eyes whenever he catches sight of her, the jock laid bare for all to see. Sammy capitalizes on Logan’s persona, but he also breaks it open, showing the school that there’s more to Logan than meets the eye.
Except, there’s really not much more to Logan – not to Sammy, at least. For the past few months, Logan has been bullying Sammy incessantly, beating him up and all around making his life a living hell. The version of Logan shown onscreen is not the version Sammy deals with in real life, and Logan knows that. He confronts Sammy later in a fit of rage. Why would Sammy crystalize his image in this way? Why would Sammy take Logan – someone who has caused him immense pain – and turn him into Paul Newman?
“I wanted you to be nice to me for five minutes,” Sammy screams when Logan demands an answer. A pause – “Or I did it to make my movie better. I don’t know.” There’s a power inherent in filmmaking that appeals to Sammy, an ability to completely control the outcome no matter what the real life situation may be.
“The Fabelmans,” Steven Spielberg’s new semi-autobiographical film, is an exploration of that sense of control, and a movie that’s as interested in solidifying the myths we tell ourselves through filmmaking as it is in dismantling them. Based on Speilberg’s childhood and the inception of his love for cinema, the film draws heavily from his difficult relationship with his parents and their complex relationship with each other (the pair divorced late in his adolescence, and his mother went on to marry his father’s good friend). Even if you aren’t well-versed in the director’s personal life, you probably aren’t surprised he’s a child of divorce – reluctant or separated parents show up everywhere in his work, from Dee Wallace’s single mother in “E.T.” to Sam Neill’s resistance to fatherhood in “Jurassic Park.”
Over a nearly 50-year career, Spielberg has used his work to create a myth of himself as filmmaker, one that “The Fabelmans” both illuminates and interrogates. From its meticulous, exhilarating camerawork to its humane performances, Spielberg’s whole soul is present on that screen. Watching a master use his prowess as a director to come to grips with the essence of the power of film and its role in his life results in one of the best movies of the year.
Spielberg draws almost entirely from his own life – Sammy serves as his stand-in, while Michelle Williams and Paul Dano take on the roles of his parents, here named Mitzi and Burt. Much like Spielberg, Sammy has three younger sisters. Much like Spielberg, he moves from New Jersey, to Arizona, to California, making amateur movies along the way. And much like Spielberg, Sammy is obsessed with film from a young age.
“The Fabelmans” opens on a young Sammy (Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord) seeing his very first movie, 1952’s “The Greatest Show on Earth.” At first, he doesn’t want to go inside, afraid of the looming, larger-than-life images waiting for him. This moment is captured on little Sammy’s level, the camera cutting off the adults at the waist and allowing us to live in that palpable fear of the gigantic that’s so ever-present for a child. One by one, his parents kneel down and come into view. His father tries to calm him by describing the mechanics behind the images he’s about to see, how the moving image is actually made up of thousands of still images, how those tiny images are projected large onto a screen. His mother takes the opposite approach – “Movies are dreams that you never forget,” she tells him, solidifying one of the family and film’s central tensions – science versus art, rational versus emotional.
When a famous scene involving a train crashing into a car plays on that silver screen, the crowd around Sammy gasps in horror. But not Sammy. The film cuts back and forth between footage from Cecil B. DeMille’s film and a close shot peering up at Sammy’s face. As the crowd gasps and shields their eyes, Sammy leans in closer, unblinking, mesmerized by the screen. An obsession is born. When he receives a model train for Hanukkah, Sammy decides to make a movie of his own, intent on recreating the crash on his own terms. Much like he’ll do later with Logan in the senior ditch day movie, he longs to command the outcome.
For Sammy, filmmaking becomes an exercise in control, something he rarely has in his own life. Throughout the film, Spielberg investigates this desire for control, both in Sammy onscreen and in his construction of the film itself. During a sequence where Sammy’s parents announce their separation to the children, Sammy imagines himself directing the moment. He disassociates from reality, placing an imaginary camera between himself and the scene, imagining it as a cinematic experience. For Sammy, it’s an attempt to wrest some power over a painful moment. In a way, Spielberg is doing the exact same thing with the entire film. But instead of separating himself from reality, he’s re-immersing himself in it – this time with the gift of context.
As Sammy’s parents, Williams and Dano represent the crux of Spielberg’s exploration, and both turn in truly insightful performances that can only form with hindsight. So many Spielberg movies explore divorce or absentee parents from a place of anger and sadness, and while there’s plenty of that to go around in “The Fabelmans,” it’s also an exercise in forgiveness, with tenderness infusing every shot. As Mitzi, Williams is endlessly beguiling, but there’s a fragility to her charm that’s buzzing just underneath her skin, bursting to get out. In a scene where Sammy tells his mother that he’s learned of her relationship with his father’s friend Benny (Seth Rogen), Spielberg frames the moment from a place of absolution that I can’t imagine he would have had the wherewithal for as a teen. Mitzi falls to her knees at Sammy’s feet, and Williams is as tiny as a child as she asks him forgiveness, which he readily gives.
Spielberg gives as much to his father as he does his mother. As Burt, Dano is positioned as the opposing force in this equation – the engineer, the imposing father who refers to Sammy’s filmmaking as nothing but a hobby. It would be so easy to turn that character into a tired trope. But Dano is so quietly endearing. In ensemble scenes, he delivers moment upon moment that in the hands of a lesser director, might have stayed on the periphery. Every look – whether it be at his wife, his son, his best friend – is pointed with whatever specific emotion the moment calls for, but always underscored by a deep-rooted affection. While Sammy might not always be able to see it in the film, Spielberg surely recognizes it now.