Film Hurts

‘The Fablemans,’ Steven Spielberg’s autobiographical movie about coming of age through, you guessed it, the magic of cinema

Hollywood’s favorite thrill-ride movie brat waited until his golden years to turn the lens on his own childhood—and it’s anything but a rose-tinted victory lap. With The Fabelmans, Steven Spielberg’s masterfully engaging origin story becomes an unlikely cautionary tale: beware how your creative passion, your one true calling, can also be a double-edged sword that reveals life’s sweet delights and bitter heartbreaks. In young Spielberg’s hands, that 8mm Bolex releases a soul-shuddering power that’s as mystical, hypnotic and foreboding as any ark of the covenant. Movies control audiences, manipulate them; that camera can make surprising heroes and villains, and inflict unexpected pain. True filmmaking is not for the faint of heart.

THE FABELMANS ★★★★★ (5/5 stars)
Directed by: Steven Spielberg
Written by: Steven Spielberg, Tony Kushner
Starring: Michelle Williams, Paul Dano, Seth Rogan, Gabriel LaBelle, Judd Hirsch
Running time: 151 min

The film’s Spielberg surrogate is Sammy Fabelman (first Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord, then Gabriel LaBelle), a wide-eyed Jersey tyke whose initial close encounter with cinema’s mysterium tremendum is very specifically dated January 10, 1952. That’s when his parents take him to see The Greatest Show on Earth. And it scares the hell out of him.

“It’s persistence of vision,” explains his computer-engineer father Burt (Paul Dano in big-nerd energy-mode). “Movies are dreams, doll!” counters his classical pianist mother Mitzi (Michelle Williams, radiating Jewish Beatnik vibes). Sammy’s not having either of it. He’s just seen a massive train wreck full of circus animals and a car that flips straight in the air. So he asks to get a train set for Hannukah. And he promptly totals it. “I want to see the crash!” he says, full of defensive alarm. That toy is a precision instrument, his dad scolds. As an aside, Mitzi encourages him to use the family 8mm camera and film it. So Sammy does—again, and again. “Let’s not tell your father,” she says sotto voce. “Just our little secret, you and me.”

An auteur is born. The afterbirth? Trauma and deceit. He films the crash to get some control over it, to master it by re-creating every terrifying frame. That anxiety, once sated, turns to joy as he shoots home movies with his sisters—of bloody dental appointments and mummy attacks, of literal skeletons in the closet. The girls dutifully scream their heads off. It’s a kick.

Then a kick in the teeth: Burt, who works for RCA but fixes TV sets as a side hustle to make ends meet, gets a plum job in Phoenix with General Electric. Mitzi is furious—her husband at least must promise to bring along his best friend and work buddy Bennie (Seth Rogen). Burt makes it happen and they all drive out West. Sammy actually thrives: selling scorpions for films, biking around town with his boy scout friends, making a Western—with screaming sisters, natch—and winning a merit badge for photography.

But then an innocent family camping trip that Sammy films becomes a dark revelation, when he realizes that—in the corner of his frame, in the background of the action—he notices that Mitzi and Bennie are more than just friendly. The sequence is straight out of Blow Out, as repeated viewings confirm Sammy’s worst fears. The camera not only never lies: it sees all.

The Fabelmans feels like a series of time-polished anecdotes strung together like a string of pearls. This being Spielberg, every scene borders on being relentlessly entertaining, directed and photographed with a hopped-up sense of finger-drumming excitement. One wonders if the more sober-minded playwright Tony Kushner might have calmed the waters and reined in his most maudlin impulses. The partnership always seems to mark Spielberg’s dramatic heights, Lincoln and West Side Story among them. And now, with The Fabelmans, it’s inspired the protean director’s most honest and vulnerable work.

The narrative of Sammy’s journey is deliberate and cumulative, well-considered over its generous running time, and full of a tortured, push-and-pull deliberation over whether Sammy should choose a vocation that, clearly, is never not going to be his destiny. “You will do your art; and you’ll remember how it hurts,” growls his hilariously scary and eccentric Uncle Boris (Judd Hirsch, meshugah and loving it). “It’s as dangerous as a lion’s mouth,” he adds. “It’ll tear your heart out.”

The same ambivalence, not surprisingly, fuels Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Spielberg’s famously sole screenwriting credit and, until The Fabelmans, his most confessional work of art. That sci-fi spectacle is veined with a giddy guilt due to its protagonist’s single-minded obsession with that soon-to-be-alien-visited natural monument, Devil’s Tower. He leaves his job, his wife, his kids—everything—for the chance to fly away and live in the stars. It’s a terrifyingly irresponsible film played as slack-jawed wonder. And there’s a sense in The Fabelmans that Spielberg was acutely aware of, and even drawn to, that basic tension from the very beginning of his career.

The Fablemans
Gabriel LaBelle as Sammy Fabelman in The Fabelmans, co-written, produced and directed by Steven Spielberg.

What The Fabelmans shows so well are those moments when Sammy himself—just trying to make a movie as best he can—trips into real pathos during his shoots. A proto-Saving Private Ryan war flick, under his direction, inadvertently shakes a handsome lead to his core. He turns a high school class trip to the shore into his own Beach Blanket Bingo. But for Logan (Sam Rechner), the anti-Semitic jock that’s been nothing but cruel to him? He’s the star of the film, and it wrecks the perplexed bully. For Sammy, it wasn’t even a conscious decision. It was just good for the movie.

Film can be a welcome distraction from pain, or a healing salve for pain, or a dogmatic lesson about pain. But Spielberg’s films always have some type of pain at their core. It’s the kind of sensibility that comes naturally to a filmmaker raised by divorced parents, especially a technocrat-wonk dad and a flitty-dreamer mom. They unconsciously turned their son into a man just as obsessed with making widely popular mass entertainment as he is with exploring the darker corners of humanity. That’s what makes The Fabelmans such a satisfying experience. It’s Spielberg’s confession that, for him, movies will always be a place of restless transcendence.

And I’d be lying if I didn’t say that the best scene of the film is the very last one. Best cameo, too, You’ll never look at the horizon the same way again.

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Stephen Garrett

Stephen Garrett is the former film editor of 'Time Out New York’ and has written about the movie industry for more than 20 years. A Rotten Tomatoes certified reviewer, Garrett is also the founder of Jump Cut, a marketing company that creates trailers and posters for independent, foreign-language, and documentary films.

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