The Fabelmans

The Fabelmans ★★★½

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

This review may contain spoilers.

[3rd viewing. Written very quickly.]
I’m not sure even the people who like this film appreciate its bleakness. A messy work overflowing with incident inevitably means that people will latch onto one, maybe two threads either as a cudgel or a shield, but I honestly believe the patented Spielbergian gloss constantly throws people for a loop, if it doesn’t make them immediately want to vomit. The Fabelmans is a loaded text because Spielberg is a loaded figure. The man’s work holds a special place in my heart, and I can talk until I’m blue in the face about his preternatural, generation-defining gifts as a craftsman and how his industry status has rendered his technical skills an unfortunate afterthought, but waging a defense of him always feels like protecting something as omnipresent as air or water. Still, if I’m to take seriously the (correct!) notion that his films have generated (or warped!) popular conceptions of the Suburban American Family, then it’s worth taking The Fabelmans at its word that that institution has as much rot and deferred cruelty as it does compassion or love. It takes years to see your parents for the first time, but the minute you do, you can never, ever go home again, an idea Spielberg makes explicit through the film’s multiple houses, which are all transitional and temporary as mirages in the desert.
You’re never more aware of how much strife you’re not seeing or hearing than in The Fabelmans, which filters a familial fissure through the eyes of a child smart enough to know what’s going on but not wise enough to comprehend its nuance or gravity. There’s clearly so much happening behind closed doors or out of earshot of the children in an effort to protect the surface of an already dysfunctional family. Spielberg nails, and I mean nails, how fundamentally good people with next-to-zero emotional boundaries act around their children, giving up the game both purposefully and accidentally of what’s Actually Going On. The family’s one moment of painful vulnerability (as opposed to smile-through-the-pain communal activity)—Mitzi’s dance against the headlights wearing a translucent outfit—is also tinged with disquiet, with Sammy’s younger sister immediately clocking the impropriety without grasping why the other adults don’t want to interrupt her performance. It’s such an amusing crock of shit when Sammy (the stand-in for America’s most preeminent and successful emotional manipulator) cheekily tells his bully that all he does is turn the camera on and it sees what it sees, but during that camping trip, he actually does function as a mere recorder of an experience beyond his years, sandwiched between two people who know just how much rippling damage will soon come down the pike. The amount of unspoken sacrifice and misdirected kindness that permeates the world of a consequential childhood feels like a dam constantly on the verge of bursting.
The gap between knowing and understanding undulates throughout the film but it’s obviously processed through Spielberg’s chosen artistic medium. If you’re going to hang this film on the “magic of the movies” canard, then once again, it’s worth taking the film at its word about what that magic actually entails. Sure, making movies is about hanging out with your friends and impressing the girl you like and garnering acclaim from your peers and solving various technical and logistical problems, all in service of soliciting amusement. But it has as much power to immerse as it does to reveal ulterior motives, expose buried emotions, and provoke existential crises through borderline-Riefenstahlian formal methods. (This insane bit, especially coming from America’s most popular Jewish filmmaker, feels profoundly under-discussed!). Spielberg doesn’t conceal any of this to the point where I’m kinda surprised how many people are falling for the purposefully deceptive “Movies are dreams!” line in the (admittedly cloying) opening scene when young Sammy Fabelman becomes baptized by witnessing a horrifying act of death and destruction.
It’s way too easy to sneer, in Paul Weller’s snotty ache of a voice, “That’s entertainment!” without comprehending the actual cost of such a drive. I got full-body chills watching Sammy imagine himself filming the news of his family’s tearful separation, partially because we know that Close Encounters—with all of its heartbreaking scenes of parental depression and familial trauma—is only a decade away, but also because it’s startlingly honest about the selfishness of artmaking. It’s telling that Sammy ignores both his uncle’s warning about egotism and his sister’s damning critique of his detached anger, with his response to the latter actually being, “Yeah, okay, but can you watch my edit?”
In spite of all the free-floating rage and hurt, The Fabelmans is still an act of clemency, a bittersweet notion considering Spielberg didn’t feel like he could make the film until his parents passed. While his father’s martyrdom and his mother’s abandonment have been processed multiple times over in his career, the parental roles were curiously and frequently inverted (Dad always leaves; Mom always stays), possibly as a misguided conflation of pity and resentment. But people get older and grudges fade and feelings soften and eventually, if no one gets fucked up too badly, then it’s worth it to forgive if you can never forget. All of Spielberg’s films, even his most commercial ones, are personal in one way or another, but there’s no other way for this emotional purge to end than the fourth wall splintering for a brief second. His camera was always alive, but we never caught it blinking before.

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