Has any divorce had a more profound impact on the American imagination than the one between Steven Spielberg’s parents? It was the breakup that launched a million blockbusters. That made daddy issues into a spectacle all their own. That led directly to “E.T.,” “Catch Me if You Can,” and the last scene of “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” while also paving the way toward any number of iconic films about the meltdown of the nuclear family — which any multiplex would tell you was the middle class’ defining crisis of the 20th century.
And so it stands to reason that “The Fabelmans,” in which Spielberg finally addresses his parents’ divorce head-on — and in exacting autobiographical detail, every shot a memory — would feel like our story as much as it does his own. I’d say this playful yet nakedly personal coming-of-auteur epic was trying to split the difference between memoir and crowdpleaser, but it seems even more determined to reconcile the two: What else would Steven Spielberg’s ultimate divorce movie be about if not the hope for some kind of reconciliation?
From the very beginning of this Spielberg movie — a scene that depicts the beginning of the movies for Spielberg — cinema is defined by the illusion of coherence that it creates between disconnected things. And people. His parents’ differences are never more explicit than in the first scene of “The Fabelmans,” which takes place outside a screening of “The Greatest Show on Earth” on a snowy New Jersey night in the winter of 1952. And not just any night in the winter of 1952, but specifically January 10 (in case you aren’t prepared for how fine a point Spielberg puts on things here).
Straightlaced computer engineer Burt Fabelman (Paul Dano) leans down to his pint-sized son and explains how persistence of vision allows 24 still and separate frames to speed by so fast that they look like a single fluid image. Mitzi (Michelle Williams), the boy’s artistically inclined mother, offers a more imaginative explanation. “Movies are like dreams that you’ll never forget,” she tells young Sammy. They’re both right, of course: They’re two sides of the same brain overlapping in the light of the projector. Cue the original Spielberg face, and a moment of redemption for one of the most commonly maligned Best Picture winners.
Two hours later — after the Fabelmans have moved from New Jersey to Arizona, from Arizona to Northern California, and from happy-go-lucky Shabbat dinners to the classic American discord of forcing your mom to admit that she’s fallen in love with Seth Rogen — someone will turn to Sammy in a difficult moment and say: “Life is nothing like the movies, Fabelman.” We know that’s not entirely true, not only because Spielberg spent the last 50 years making all sorts of extraordinary films that sting us with a profound sense of personal recognition, but also because “The Fabelmans” so delicately blurs the line between life and the movies that it becomes impossible to tell the difference between Spielberg’s memories and the largely toothless film he’s making about them. That too is a kind of reconciliation.
Everything in “The Fabelmans” is real and unreal all at once, as if a documentary of the director’s life were being double-projected over his own artistic interpretation of the same events. It’s telling that the one actual dream sequence in the movie — a skin-crawling nightmare — is presented at face value and rolls into the scene that follows without so much as a speedbump.
It’s even more telling that this shaggy biopic Spielberg made about his singularly mythologized adolescence is one of his lightest and least sentimental films, even as Sammy becomes a teenager and finds himself swimming in deeper waters. What starts as a self-aggrandizing tribute to Spielberg’s own magical genius (complete with tactful nods to some of his most totemic work) soon frays into a more complicated story about a kid who falls in love with movies while his family falls apart around him. Still, few scenes probe deep under the surface, and shtick abounds at every turn.
The bravura sequence in which Sammy’s (real) Uncle Boris comes to visit epitomizes how “The Fabelmans” tries to straddle the line between memory and imagination in a way that makes it hard to tell if Spielberg is more focused on his family or his audience. Embodied by a heavily accented Judd Hirsch, who owns his one-scene role as a former Hollywood stagehand with the kind of blustery chutzpah that every Jew of a certain age will recognize from their own family stories, Uncle Boris shows up for just long enough to tell Sammy that he’ll have to choose between the family that he loves and the art that he might just love even more.
It’s a cornerstone moment in a movie that careens from one formative experience to the next and unfolds like a Borscht Belt routine (the film’s TIFF premiere audience erupted into applause when Hirsch’s character made his exit). Uncle Boris is right to predict that Sammy will soon find himself in a position where he’s forced to choose between Hollywood and Arizona, but “The Fabelmans” is fully aware that its very existence suggests that Sammy’s choice isn’t as mutually exclusive as it’s presented to him. One look at the steely determination in Gabriel LaBelle’s eyes (the young actor a dead ringer for the director he’s playing) and it’s clear that Sammy’s life will be at least something like the movies, even if the only way to accomplish that is to make the movies more like his life.
The sharpest throughline of Spielberg and Tony Kushner’s episodic script follows the evolution of how Sammy makes his movies and the role that the camera plays as a lens onto his life. During the heavenly New Jersey years, in which the only real tension is between Mitzi and her mother-in-law (Jeannie Berlin), Sammy’s Bolex B8SL is a magical device that immortalizes a certain innocence.
“The Fabelmans” lays it on a bit thick as the Haley Joel Osment-looking kid who plays pipsqueak Sammy obsessively uses his own hands as a screen for his first home movies — the dreaded “Belfast” vibes are strong in the early going, even if they’re necessary to establish a lost idyll — but the formative stuff works as a meet-cute between a young boy and the love of his life.
Burt is delighted that his son is into technical equipment, and sees the camera as a potential gateway to science. (Dano is subtly heartbreaking as a square, well-meaning dad who sees more than we realize but doesn’t have the power to change his shape.) Mitzi has a more accurate sense of the artistic impulses that are starting to bubble up in her only son, and Williams gives one of her greatest performances in the role of a woman confronting her own tug-of-war between stability and self-expression.
We raise an eyebrow when Mitzi insists that Burt can’t move their family to Arizona unless he finds his best friend Bennie (Rogen) a job at the same company, but Sammy is just happy that he gets to keep his favorite “uncle.” There’s no hiding that Mitzi is more simpatico with Bennie than she is with her own husband, but “The Fabelmans” is strictly told from its young protagonist’s POV and its absolute faith in the fabric of his universe. Besides, teenage Sammy is too busy making elaborate Westerns with his Cub Scout buddies to notice that kind of thing.
Of course, it’s only when he catches a glimpse of something in the background of a home movie that he wisens to the truth. Sammy can roll back and re-edit the footage as much as he likes, but he can’t fix what he saw. And it’s only a matter of time before he will have to show it to Mitzi, who’s always his first audience.
The scene where he shows her the raw dailies is captured in a devastating close-up, but even more damning is the bit just before when Sammy plays the sanitized version for his entire family, standing in the back as the Fabelmans all bask in the glow of his flickering lies. It’s an uncommonly piercing moment in a film that often soft-shoes its way around the ugly truth. Spielberg’s archly composed dolly shots and push-ins impose a layer of movieness that keeps the raw emotionality of this story at a slight remove. It’s also a moment that forever deepens Sammy’s understanding of what movies can do — for his audience and for himself.
If “The Fabelmans” allows Spielberg to acknowledge how he’s wielded a camera like a superpower that sometimes feels too dangerous to use on his own family, the film is also careful (to a fault) not to become more self-mythologizing origin story than a tender coming-of-age drama that just happens to have been shot by Janusz Kaminski. That push-and-pull is most obvious during the last stretch of Sammy’s adolescence, when the Fabelmans are uprooted to a Northern California town where the other kids are all the size of anti-semitic sequoias, and a clumsy bullying subplot paves the way toward Sammy’s crush on an ultra-Catholic brunette who fetishizes his connection to Jesus Christ. If “The Fabelmans” had chapter titles for each of its various episodes, this one would be “My First Shiksa.”
The “Catch Me if You Can” vibes are particularly strong in this part of the movie as a resourceful teenager begins using his talents to distract himself from the divorce he’s powerless to stop.(If the “The Fabelmans” is more of an instructive deep cut than a classic in its own right, it also does a brilliant job of enriching Spielberg’s best and most personal masterpieces). While that Hanks/DiCaprio classic strikes a deeper chord than “The Fabelmans” ever does, it also comes to mind for its fleetness and buoyancy, as all but the most sobering moments of “The Fabelmans” are undercut with a certain degree of standard American mishegoss. This may be a monumental autobiography by and about the most storied director of modern cinema, but Spielberg has never seemed as resolutely human and life-sized.
That doesn’t always bode well for a movie that — in keeping with its subject’s talents — fares better when it embraces its movieness and lets go of “reality” altogether. The sequence in which Sammy discovers his mom’s crime of the heart is astonishing for its wordless virtuosity; it’s a self-contained fugue of music, faces, and light. Likewise, the film’s instantly legendary final scene (which I won’t spoil here, but could soon become as iconic to Spielberg fans as anything he’s ever shot) is so enchanted by the Hollywood of it all that Sammy’s life is transmuted into cinema right before our eyes.
“The Fabelmans” isn’t a film about someone trying to fluff their own legend or wallow in their formative years, but it does sometimes feel as though Spielberg is gently trying to forgive his parents their trespasses in much the same language that he’s immortalized them for the last 50 years. For decades, he believed that his dad was responsible for leaving his mom, only to find out late in life that the opposite was true to some degree. “The Fabelmans” splits the difference: It’s less interested in assigning blame than in rendering his parents as real people whose love for him and for each other wasn’t negated by the other needs that took root in their hearts.
Spielberg understands both of them with a generosity of spirit that never spills into mawkishness. He may not have been able to fix his parents’ marriage, but for more than half a century his films have been reconciling the family that Arnold and Leah Spielberg made possible. “The Fabelmans” doesn’t do that as well as the director’s best work, but it dramatizes his process of making peace with his dreams so beautifully that it almost doesn’t matter. To me, this is a far cry from a magnum opus. For Spielberg, it feels like the greatest show on Earth.
“The Fabelmans” premiered at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival. Universal Pictures will release it in theaters on Friday, November 11.