Starring Michelle Williams and Paul Dano, Steven Spielberg’s semi-autobiographical The Fabelmans is infused with warmth, and “one of the year’s most genuinely heartfelt films”, writes Caryn James.
Making crowd-pleasing movies is Steven Spielberg’s superpower, and sometimes his biggest flaw, pulling him toward a tear-jerking (“ET go home”) tug of sentimentality. His autobiographical The Fabelmans is definitely a crowd-pleaser. It won the Audience Award at the Toronto Film Festival, instantly vaulting it to the top of the Oscars race. But this fictional version of his childhood and adolescence is also among his most rigorous and emotionally honest films, largely avoiding self-indulgence. Infused with family warmth, but with a knowing adult eye on the loss of innocence, it is one of the year’s most genuinely heartfelt films.
Spielberg is, of course, famous for stories about broken families, but this one has no adorable extra-terrestrial or UFO to drive the plot. Instead, it relies on Spielberg’s strength as a master storyteller, as we follow Sammy, the Spielberg stand-in, through his beginnings as a filmmaker and his parents’ divorce. Spielberg has revealed much of that story in interviews over the years, so it is clear that The Fabelmans is very close to reality. It begins on a snowy night in 1952 when Burt (Paul Dano), a practical-minded computer engineer, and Mitzi (Michelle Williams), the imaginative parent, take Sammy to the movies. Seeing Cecil B DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth, as the young Steven really did, is awe-inspiring, frightening and life-changing for the wide-eyed small boy (Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord). Spielberg, whose films have a technical crispness even when loaded with fantastical elements, has evidently inherited aspects of both parents.
The family – including Sammy (played as an adolescent by Gabriel LaBelle) and his three sisters – follows Burt’s job from New Jersey to Arizona to California, but Mitzi is the human dynamo driving the film. Williams captures all her energy and underlying sadness as a suburban homemaker who could have had a career as a pianist. With blonde pixie hair, lacquered red nails and Peter Pan collars – the period details are vibrant and exact – she is adored by everyone around her, yet is also the ultimate disruptor of the family. Her enthusiasm for life and her recklessness seem inseparable. She piles her children into the car and drives toward a tornado because it’s exciting, only later realising the danger they were in.
It would have been easy for her to run away with the film, but Spielberg never loses sight of the tightly knotted family dynamic. Burt is meek and quiet next to his flamboyant wife, and the role much less flashy. But Dano’s beautifully subtle performance captures Burt’s profound decency. Dano also lets us glean that as the marriage begins to crumble, Burt sees what he doesn’t want to admit even to himself.
The sharply drawn screenplay, by Spielberg and Tony Kushner, his frequent collaborator on films including Lincoln and West Side Story, allows us to know the characters without telling us what to think, deftly feeding us information in vividly realistic family scenes. Unlike most 1950s mothers, Mitzi sweeps paper dinner plates up in the paper tablecloth and tosses it all away. At that same dinner, Burt’s mother Hadassah (Jeannie Berlin) hints at trouble the children don’t yet see. Burt’s best friend Bennie (Seth Rogen) is a constant presence, devoted to the family and especially to Mitzi. “He’s not your uncle,” Hadassah snaps at her granddaughter when the girl calls him Uncle Bennie. Late in the film, a crucial scene with Sammy gives Bennie his own emotional weight.
In a naturalistic performance that relies on reactions, LaBelle’s face is expressive and sensitive, clueing us in to Sammy’s feelings. Spielberg adds humour by showing us the amateur films Sammy makes, casting his sisters in a Western called Gunsmog, and his friends in a war movie. And his home movies include a family camping trip when Mitzi dances in the car’s headlights in a transparent embroidered dress, entrancing Burt and Bennie and embarrassing one of her daughters, Reggie (Julia Butters). There is a truth concealed in the home movie that, in a shattering moment of awakening, leads to Sammy learning about his adored mother’s flaws.
The Fabelmans doesn’t entirely avoid playing to the crowd. When Mitzi’s Uncle Boris (a scenery-chewing Judd Hirsch) visits, he is too on the nose when he advises, “Art will tear your heart out.” And at the moment Mitzi realises that her son has unearthed her secret, the camera stays on Williams’s face. The scene is taut, anguished, and also just a little too Oscar bait-y.
The film’s title points toward mythmaking, the family stories we tell that can take on gauzy lives of their own. Spielberg is unflinching about Mitzi’s selfishness in breaking up the family, though, and about Burt’s blinkered insistence that Sammy should be practical about a career and stop dreaming of movies. From the distance of time, Spielberg sees their worst qualities with the forgiveness that brings to mind the classic line from Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game: “Everybody has their reasons.” That enormous generosity of heart is what makes The Fabelmans so stirring.