There’s a famous clip from Inside the Actors Studio where James Lipton observes that, in Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the way to successful communication is a blending of left-brain engineering and right-brain musicality that mirrors Spielberg’s at-odds parents. The insight is sound, as Spielberg acknowledges, but what’s more moving is that the filmmaker didn’t consciously intend it. It just bubbled up, part of his unique cellular composition that gave that film and so many of his others a particular pang of emotional truth in the face of fantasy. So much of Spielberg’s personal life has been examined as informative of his artistic output, as the myths behind the mythmaker. And there’s power to that. But there’s also always something bigger and more widely resonant lurking beneath the surface. With The Fabelmans, Spielberg and his trusted collaborator Tony Kushner look this dramatic legacy in the face, and find that inscribing autobiographical anecdotes to celluloid doesn’t just canonize a legend, but reveals the bliss and cost of its creation.
Embodied by Sammy Fabelman (Gabriel LaBelle), Spielberg’s story is one of sacrifice and selfishness—at least, that’s how he tells it as a man in his mid-70s, wistfully looking back. Structured to simultaneously track his relationship with movies and his parents’ relationship with each other, The Fabelmans’ memoir flickers and jumps. Its drama is deeply intimate and the vignettes well-remembered. Whether Sammy is played by the young Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord (perhaps the biggest- and bluest-eyed child to have ever lived) and recreating The Greatest Show on Earth with toy trains, or by LaBelle, whose snide teenage edge makes the prodigy relatable, he has the same dissociation and intimacy to the events and people around him as a filmmaker does to his subjects. Even as a child, Sammy is both the main character of his life and the orchestrator of others’.
Except for his parents. Mitzi (Michelle Williams) and Burt (Paul Dano), the pianist and the computer pioneer. Their separation would influence some of America’s biggest blockbusters, but how they approached their own callings would dig even deeper under their first child’s skin. Williams, often dressed in ethereal whites and always on the cusp of succumbing to the vapors, embodies artistry set aside for family—suppressed in a way that is slowly killing her. Mitzi’s a flashing warning light as red as her fingernails and lips. Don’t bottle up your needs, creative or romantic, or it’ll lead to heartbreak. Dano stuffs his feelings just as deeply, burying them beneath Burt’s professional achievements: Innovation and ambition dictating the life of his family, keeping the trivialities that make it worth living at arm’s length. He’s as serious as the short-sleeves and ties that NASA employees wore getting us to the Moon, but with enough geeky giddiness that it’s easy to forgive him. At least he’s doing what he loves.
The pair of performers, and Seth Rogen’s chummy family friend Bennie, compose the collage that makes up Sammy’s personality just as much as the Westerns he sneaks into. Their deceptively simple roles allow plenty of melancholy (noticeably subtle, as if only remembered with years of hindsight) to seep into the sometimes-sepia recollections. Williams’ reckless playfulness and sensuality burst from behind stifling walls of responsibility; Dano’s rage ignites after his weak-willed exterior faces too much friction. Sammy, too young to face the forbidden truth that his parents are indeed people, watches behind the safety of his camera lens.
LaBelle is perfect, and not just because he looks like young Spielberg. A scene upon which The Fabelmans pivots, where he discovers that his mother has been hiding an illicit relationship, leaves him as shell-shocked as the star of his Boy Scout war picture. Teary, perpetually hopeless, unable to communicate—or even speak—Sammy just blearily wanders forward until he’s forced to stop and show his pain. It’s hormonal angst and teenage ineptitude, but it’s more than that. Movies are his language, as depressing and wonderful as it sounds.
Spielberg is at his peak when gushing over Sammy’s emotional crutch. The ka-chunk, ka-chunk slice of the editing machine, the physical taping of film strips, the light and speed and power of projection—it’s no wonder Sammy takes refuge in the filmmaking process. Janusz Kaminski’s own camera often whirls about in wonder, or lingers on LaBelle’s dexterous hands so we can appreciate the physical manipulation of dreams. It’s a haven, especially for someone raised to appreciate something as intangible as interpreting sheet music and something as logical as circuitry. Movies allow us to tell stories using the same senses with which we imagine them, with painstakingly technical levels of control. The wunderkind is now an old master, adding bittersweet depth to his adoration. He now knows too well the distance you must take from the world to tell these stories—even when it’s your own.
One of The Fabelmans’ greatest pleasures is its devotion to the filmmaking process and its playful relationship to putting that process through the paces. Sammy, running off to his room after another hard day of growing up, finds the same beauty in his snapshots of the everyday as we do when Spielberg presents them to us throughout Sammy’s life. A procession of delinquent shopping carts, blown through the intersection by a tornado. Sammy’s tipsy mom dancing in the headlights, her translucent nightgown revealing her to her children, seated around the campsite’s fire, as a woman. These are the images that make up a life, the touchstone sounds (rattling, misaligned wheels on asphalt) and shadows (the dark curves of leg beneath gauzy fabric) that linger over the decades.
Kushner and Spielberg’s script draws ephemeral ties between stock characters (the anti-Semitic square-jawed jock, the wasting waif mom) that belie complexities in order to get at fleeting, lightning-bug concepts that blink on and off at us, luring us closer even as they disappear before our eyes. There is majesty and wonder in The Fabelmans’ images, but the impossible pressure on those captured to be their facades is a coming-of-age lesson perfectly tuned for a world increasingly dependent on pure perception. Being seen entails anxiety and expectation. Seeing is so much simpler.
Yet, as Sammy discovers—-on his own and with conversations with his sister (Julia Butters), bully (Sam Rechner) and two scene-stealing old-timers of the industry (Judd Hirsch’s great-uncle Boris and David Lynch’s phenomenal John Ford)—observing your own life not just as someone living it, but as an artist intent on using it, is a lonely way to go. But sometimes you don’t have a choice. There is a terrible cost to dedicating your life to something, an understanding that everything and everyone else is inherently bumped down on your list of priorities. Even in The Fabelmans’ most meandering digressions, Spielberg is reckoning with the central contradiction of his medium. How can someone who sweats over his own memories, frame by frame, be at a remove from them? How can someone be anything but a perfectionist workaholic when they know they’re shutting out their loved ones in favor of their craft? It’d be disrespectful to those left behind if you gave your art anything but your best shot. The Fabelmans makes the bargain look painful, self-centered and utterly joyful—a genius embracing his regrets and in so doing, reminding us of how lucky we are that we all pay some version of this price, for ourselves and for one another.
Director: Steven Spielberg
Writer: Steven Spielberg, Tony Kushner
Starring: Gabriel LaBelle, Michelle Williams, Paul Dano, Seth Rogen, Judd Hirsch, David Lynch
Release Date: November 11, 2022
Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.
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