In The Fabelmans, we basically spend two and a half hours watching Steven Spielberg going through self-therapy. After its premiere Saturday night here at the Toronto International Film Festival, Spielberg himself alluded to the audience that this, indeed, served as therapy. At this point, if Steven Spielberg wants to make a movie and explore how he became the person he did through the lens of his parents’ (played by Paul Dano and Michelle Williams as Burt and Mitzi Fabelman) fraught relationship, he’s certainly earned that right. It’s an interesting scenario here because, on its surface, a young man watching his parents slowly break up over a few years while, at the same time, discovering what he truly loves (in this case, if you didn’t know, “making movies”) isn’t all that unique of a concept. But the fact we know Sammy Fabelman (Gabriel LaBelle, who is terrific and somehow really does encompass the spirit of Steven Spielberg) is a stand-in for the most successful director of the last 47 years and literally shaped the definition of popular culture, yes, this seems like a topic worth exploring.
This is a strange thing to say, but I thought about Weird: The Al Yankovic Story a few times while watching The Fabelmans and these movies are direct polar opposites of each other. (Both Steven Spielberg and Weird Al would probably be happy to hear that.) Whereas Weird is Weird Al’s fictional account of his origins that purposefully leans into the trope of, “Here’s how I came up with the idea for ‘My Bologna,’” for each of his songs, there’s none of that in The Fabelmans. There’s no scene of Sammy Fabelman at the beach seeing a shark and saying, “Boy, that thing sure has some jaws, [wink wink].” (Though, now that I think about it, maybe I would also like to see Weird Al take a crack at a Steven Spielberg origin story, too.) Actually, the closest this comes to happening is a funny “wink wink” moment to The Fabelmans becoming a movie someday. (Spoiler, it does become a movie someday.)
Young Sammy Fabelman lives with his parents and two younger sisters in New Jersey. Sammy is taken to his first movie, Cecil B. DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth.* The movie sticks with him, especially the climactic train crash, to the point he can no longer sleep at night. His father buys him a train set in an effort to show him how they work. Worried he is going to break the nice, new train set from crashing the cars into each other so often, Sammy’s mother suggests he film the train accident so that he can watch it as many times as he wants without breaking the train set. So Sammy picks up a camera and goes to work. (In the future, Sammy will direct Minority Report.)
*I recently watched The Greatest Show on Earth when I was watching all the Best Picture winners before this year’s Academy Awards. It’s not a very good movie and somehow won Best Picture over High Noon. But, damn, that train crash is really something else. And I can totally see how a scene like that would affect a kid for weeks. I saw The Empire Strikes Back around that same age and I’m pretty sure it messed me up for life.
Also hanging around a lot is Sammy’s “Uncle Benny” (Seth Rogen), who is not actually Sammy’s uncle (this is usually a bad sign) who seems to be really great friends with Sammy’s mom, Mitzi. When Sammy accidentally films Mitzi and Benny in an intimate moment years later, it sets off a series of cascading events that tears apart the fabric of every single one of Sammy’s family relationships. But he still loves making his movies, a “hobby” that Sammy’s dad, Burt, thinks is sort of a waste of time and wishes Sammy would concentrate more on algebra. “Uncle Benny” even, strangely enough, winds up moving to Arizona with the rest of the family after Burt gets a better job offer.
So, Michelle Williams will get a lot of attention and, yes, very well might win the Oscar for Supporting Actress. But I want to talk about Paul Dano here. This is a super interesting performance. From the above description, you might think Dano’s performance hinges on a lot of yelling about “that damn camera,” or whatever. But Dano really does present Burt as one of the nicest people to ever walk this Earth. Constantly internalizing his son’s waning attention and his marriage falling apart at the hands of who he thought was his best friend, while all the time remaining a pleasant human being. This seems extremely difficult to pull off. We see the pain in Dano’s face, but he rarely tells us about that pain or emotes that pain. He’s a good father who is just trying to be realistic that his son isn’t going to grow up one day and direct Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. (Even though Sammy would grow up to direct Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.)
Also of note is Judd Hirsch who shows up for a brief moment as Sammie’s great uncle Boris, who is actually a relative and has worked in Hollywood and convinces Sammy to chase his dreams in maybe the most aggressive way possible. And, well, Boris’s advice? It paid off because Sammy will one day grow up to direct Munich.
My favorite part of The Fabelmans is when the family moves to northern California. Sammy is constantly hounded by high school bullies and also starts dating an extremely Christian girl who wants him to accept Jesus into his soul. It’s here that Sammy uses his filmmaking skills to seek revenge on his bullies. It’s also here that Steven Spielberg uses his filmmaking skills to finally exact revenge on his bullies 58 years later. I truly believe part of the reason why this movie exists is for revenge. There are a couple of people out there who are going to feel pretty lousy about themselves after seeing a movie in which the most famous filmmaker of a generation publicly calls them out. This is a sweet movie that has a mean undercurrent and I admire that about it. Revenge against bullies is a good thing.
After the premiere, Steven Spielberg assured the crowd this was not his last movie and any reports of such were false. I can see why people might think that though, on the surface. He turned down another Indiana Jones movie to make this and it does feel like one last look back. There’s even nods in The Fabelmans to why Spielberg shoots movies at the angles he does and who gave him that advice in the first place. But after you see The Fabelmans you realize this man will never stop making movies. It truly is his life. And, here, he is inviting us in to see how and why that all happened. (Well, “inviting” … with the purchase of one ticket, please.)
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