The Fabelmans

The Fabelmans ★★★★★

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.


“You do what your heart says you have to. 'Cause you don't owe anyone your life. Not even me.”

In The Fabelmans, our main character is torn between the Illusion of truth and the reality of memory. At the beginning of the film, during a viewing of Cecil B. DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth, we see a young Sammy terrified while watching a train crash on the silver screen. Although he cannot control what he sees, he’s engrossed all the same. He knows that it isn’t real but the illusion is too strong to be ignored.

For Hanukkah, Sammy asks for a toy train set just so he can crash the train, again and again. After his mother Mitzi insists on filming the crash with the family camera so he doesn’t ruin his new toy, he discovers another alluring component - the control and comfort in creating. When he shows his mother the reel of film after it arrives from the lab, Sammy pulls her into the closet and stares at her as her expression turns warm and joyous. She’s not only his mother at this moment; she’s also an audience member. He recognizes that film isn’t simply a therapeutic narrative process, but an emotional one for the spectator. It’s clear, like many other vignettes in The Fabelmans, that this moment has forever lingered in Spielberg’s mind. Seeing it dramatized on screen allows us to reckon with the harsh contrasts of truth and memory, and how they often converged in harrowing, unexpected forms for a young Spielberg.

A strong example of this is the death of Sammy’s grandmother. We see Sammy’s father, Burt, staring at the vital sign monitor as she is passing away in a hospital room. Forever practical, he trusts the machine to tell him when it is the end. Mitzi is lying next to her mother and sobbing into her chest. Holding her. Talking to her. Sammy sits off to the side, focusing on the throbbing neck of his grandmother as it pulses rhythmically. Soon, her pulse halts to a sudden stop. The body is still and her eyes open up one last time. This traumatic event is evoked with expressive, personal detail.

The Fabelmans is haunted by these vivid recollections, as if they’ve risen to the surface after decades of repression. For a film that marketed itself as a triumphant ode to cinema (though it is also unequivocally that!), the trailers failed to convey the sheer complexity of its sadness and catharsis. How Sammy’s mother brings along the kids to chase after a tornado, and she asks them to affirm her decision - “everything happens for a reason.” Or the moment where Uncle Boris (played magnificently by Judd Hirsch) points to Sammy and motions a shirt-tearing gesture as a final lingering footnote before hopping into a taxi. Art is physical and it is the culmination of our individual observations - all of it matters.

But none of it matters more than the familial dynamics, which Spielberg escalates with the dread and blunt reality of his heaviest pictures. A key editing sequence recalls the slow terror of Blow Up. Sammy learns that his mother and father are not infallible, that they’re struggling to be both parents and people, that they often don’t think about how their most reckless choices affect their own children. Spielberg returns Sammy to his bedroom closet later in the film, but this time, he doesn’t sit down with his mother in the dark to watch a movie together. He shuts the door and forces his mother to watch and look at her mistakes. It’s a film he’s edited that shows evidence of her marital affair. Michelle Williams’ Mitzi, in a painful gesture, crawls out of the closet afterwards and pulls the plug on the projector. The camera sees everything. It may be a machine, but the illusion tells the truth.

This is especially important with the third section, as a teenage Sammy is dealing with anti-Semitic bullies and the crumbling of his parents’ marriage. He has visions of filming the ‘family meeting’ where his dad attempts to take blame for the divorce, to bear the weight of Mitzi’s transgressions. Sammy yearns to control the uncontrollable, to provide his perspective, because maybe it’ll be different if he could direct. He’s already observing his real life as scenes and moments to be re-created. When capturing the ‘senior ditch day’ for his high school, he depicts one of his bullies as a shirtless volleyball god, with a portrait so flattering that it must be some sort of sick joke. Sammy isn’t quite sure of what he exactly intended, but it affected everyone who watched it, and that just might be enough.

Far from a self-congratulatory victory lap (although if anyone has earned it, it’s this guy), The Fabelmans finds Spielberg at his most prickly and complex, with a balanced tone that pulls just as much from A.I. as it does Close Encounters. With Janusz Kamiński once again at the helm as DP, the film takes on an unadorned, unfettered glow. It’s quietly beautiful. But as a nostalgia piece, the primary driving emotion is regret. How lovely is it that Spielberg still has movies that he *needs* to make? There’s a burning pain inside him, and it is the key color in painting his canvas. Once we reach the John Ford epilogue, with the usage of that stirring Max Steiner Searchers score, and David Lynch’s dynamite one-scene performance, the film seems to have completely given itself over to us, as if the Spielberg myth is complete.

But it’s not, really. This is not a swan song but rather a reckoning with his memories. And Spielberg reminds us of this with a glorious, transcendent final shot. It’s knowing and funny and as swift as an honest mistake. The tilt of the camera affirms John Ford’s teachings, yes, but it also imparts a sweet, humble truth amidst the studio backlot fantasy: Spielberg has never stopped being both a dreamer and an engineer.

A late-period masterwork.

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