Steven Spielberg’s latest release “The Fabelman’s” is a thorny, complicated work as the legendary director tells the story of his family and childhood, and attempts to untangle the intense power of cinema. It’s an emotionally powerful movie, a fact that led to it winning the Best Picture-Drama and Best Director awards at the 80th Golden Globes and garnered a further three nomination.

The most important scene in “The Fabelmans” comes during the third act. Parents Burt (Paul Dano) and Mitzi (Michelle Williams) Fabelman gather their four children in the living room of their Northern California home to deliver devastating news.

As tears are shed and accusations thrown, the eldest Fabelman child — teenage aspiring film director Sam (Gabriel LaBelle) — glances over to the mirror. In the mirror, Sam sees himself with his 8mm camera circling his family, finding the best angles to capture the drama. The camera becomes both a shield, obscuring his face and removing him from the tumultuous scene, and a way for Sam to translate his emotions. 

A fractured family has been at the center of many of Spielberg’s films. “E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and “Catch Me if You Can” all deal with the turmoil of divorce, emotions that have been frequently interpreted as having been inspired by the dissolution of Spielberg’s parent’s marriage.

Now, with “The Fabelmans” cutting through all the metaphor, Spielberg presents a fictionalized story of his childhood, from falling in love with movies to the pain of his parent’s divorce. With the warm intimacy of an uncle telling old stories after family dinner, moments — both significant and mundane — from Spielberg’s post-World War II upbringing are presented: camping trips, family deaths, first kisses and, yes, making movies with his scout troop in the Arizona desert. 

Portrait of the artist as a young man

Much has been written about Spielberg’s childhood, and even mythologized by some film scholars and critics — the preternaturally gifted filmmaker making 8mm movies in his backyard while nursing the open wound of his parents divorce.

Early on in “The Fabelmans,” teenage Sam goes to see John Ford’s masterpiece “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.” A famous line from the movie is: “When the legend becomes truth, print the legend.”

With “The Fabelmans,” Spielberg has the opportunity to print the legend, to soften and beautify painful experiences through the power of cinema. The tension of the movie comes from the way that manipulation butts up against reality. In fact, it’s what “The Fabelmans” is about: the way that film can simultaneously distort reality and reveal truth.

‘Movies are dreams that you’ll never forget’

In the winter of 1952, young Sam is taken by his parents to see Cecil B. DeMille’s circus epic “The Greatest Show on Earth,” his first ever movie. As they walk into the movie palace, the analytical electrical engineer Burt explains the technical side of filmmaking, how a flaw in the human retina allows 24 frames per second to pass by as a fluid image. In contrast, the artistic Mitzi whispers to Sammy that “movies are dreams that you’ll never forget.”

The climatic train crash in “The Greatest Show on Earth” scares Sammy so much that he begins to obsessively recreate the moment with his Lionel set. Mitzi is able to pick up on the fact that her son is attempting to overcome the fear, and lends him a movie camera to film the crash. Very quickly, the camera becomes a means for Sam to translate and process his emotions, to control the things in his life that are uncontrollable. 

As Sam graduates from filming his younger sisters wrapped up in toilet paper as mummies to figuring out that poking holes in film can simulate gunfire, a distance forms between Burt and Mitzi. The scientific-minded Burt and the creative Mitzi love deeply, but don’t understand the other’s mind and need someone to translate — a task that falls to mutual friend Bennie Loewy (Seth Rogen). Bennie is such an indispensable part of the family that when the Fabelmans move to Arizona, he does so as well.

Later, the family is uprooted for Northern California. Miserable in her marriage and lonely in a new city, Mitzi’s impulsive, Peter Pan qualities take on an unsettling tinge, such as when she buys a monkey because she “needed a laugh.” Sam encounters antisemitic bullying at the high school, gets a zealously religious girlfriend and falls deeper into filmmaking as the family breaks apart. 

With Spielberg’s established reputation for sentimentality and manipulation, it may come as a surprise to find that “The Fabelmans” is his most reserved and light movie in years. The movie never goes for the easy emotion or the quick resolution. “The Fabelmans” has an almost clinically clear eye on its characters and the situations, an empathetic understanding of human behavior, and an innate instinct for entertainment that all work together to broaden its horizons and allow every audience member into its world.

Wonderful performances give the movie heart and scope

View Comments

One of the tools that “The Fabelmans” has to help widen its scope beyond Steven Spielberg are the rich and holistic performances from Williams and Dano. Williams bursts off the screen, with an electric bundle of nerves and endless charm. She captures the feeling of a woman constrained and on the verge of tearing herself apart to get out. Dano is equally as good in a far less showy role, doing subtle work showing love and care underneath emotional constipation. 

“The Fabelmans” ends with a chance meeting between Sam and a legendary director that is too deliriously funny to even consider spoiling. Sam leaves the meeting, skipping through the Universal Studios backlot with a head full of dreams and future movies to make. As he moves down the backlot there’s a delightful cinematic gag, a shift in camera perspective. Maybe Sam Fabelman doesn’t know exactly where to put the camera yet, but Steven Spielberg does, and he knows exactly why you keep looking.

“The Fabelmans” is a deeply personal work, with a heart big enough to encompass your own, to remind you of the emotional power of the movies. 

“The Fabelmans” is rated PG-13 for some strong language, thematic elements, brief violence and drug use. 

Join the Conversation
Looking for comments?
Find comments in their new home! Click the buttons at the top or within the article to view them — or use the button below for quick access.