THE FABELMANS is the new Steven Spielberg joint that we can safely call the most personal of his career. At first glance it may seem like just another fictional story about a Jewish kid who makes 8mm movies in Phoenix, Arizona in the ‘50s and moves to Saratoga, California and his mom buys a monkey and his parents split up and he moves to L.A. with his dad and goes to USC and tries to break into the film business, but in my opinion it is not a coincidence that this character “Sammy Fabelman” was born at the same time as Spielberg to a similar family and lived in the same towns and did the same things and had the same experiences. From what I’ve read this is not even a loosely autobiographical story, but a pretty direct one about his childhood and specifically about what he got from each of his parents and why their marriage didn’t work out.
It’s also about him becoming a filmmaker, but those things are related. Just like Batman’s origin story, Spielberg’s starts with a kid being taken to the movies. (Had it not been for that mugger, maybe Bruce Wayne would’ve directed READY PLAYER ONE.) Five-year-old Sammy (Mateo Zoryon Francis-Deford) is in line to see THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH at a theater in New Jersey. He’s never seen a movie before and doesn’t really understand what it is, but he’s scared because he heard something about the people being giant. We get a handy encapsulation of his parents Burt (Paul Dano, TAKING LIVES) and Mitzi (Michelle Williams, SPECIES) in the differing ways they try to comfort him. Burt, a computer engineer, tells him about the projector and the projectionist, the still photos moving really fast, the concept of persistence of vision. Mom, a talented pianist, says it’s like a dream that you don’t wake up from. As Sammy grows up he’ll apply Dad’s scientific brain to his obsessions with cameras, editing and effects technology, and his mom’s artistic soul to everything else.
Now that I think about it it’s almost comical that Steven Spielberg, the master of getting great performances out of young children, and of showing awe on faces, has now made a movie that re-enacts his own wide-eyed reaction to his first cinematic experience – both during the movie and on the way home as he plays it over and over in his brain.
But that may very well be a look of terror. Sammy fixates on a scary train wreck sequence, and both parents regret bringing him, convinced they’ve traumatized him. There’s a perfect joke where he’s going to bed with visions of the train in his head, and it cuts to the parents’ room as they hear him screaming. Mitzi runs to comfort him, but when she opens the door he’s excitedly bouncing on the bed like it’s a trampoline. The scream was not about nightmares, but about realizing what he wants for a Hanukkah gift: a train set.
It can’t help but be Spielberg’s most meta movie. When little Sammy purposely makes the model train crash, positioning himself to see it from the angle he remembers from the movie, I was very conscious of Spielberg and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski (SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, COOL AS ICE) using the magic of cinema to capture a little boy imagining the magic of cinema. Burt can only think that the boy is damaging the expensive toys he bought him; it takes Mitzi to realize she should let him film the crash with one of Burt’s 8mm cameras to end the obsession. Which of course starts a new one. Sammy starts dressing up his sisters as mummies and stuff, making funny little movies, a passion that only grows more elaborate after they’ve moved to Phoenix and he’s a teenager played by the uncannily Spielbergian Gabriel LaBelle (THE PREDATOR).
Sammy’s sisters are played by Keeley Karsten, Julia Butters (ONCE UPON A TIME …IN HOLLYWOOD) and Sophia Kopera, and they all adore their dad’s best friend from work “Uncle Bennie” (Seth Rogen, DONNIE DARKO), who is always around, and so close to the family that Mitzi insists Burt has to figure out how to hire him at the new job so he can move with them.
Sammy gets his boy scout troop involved with movie-making when he makes a western to earn his photography merit badge. Mrs. Vern nudged me during a boy scout scene and I thought it was because it reminded her of River Phoenix and friends in the opening of INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE. It wasn’t until they’re watching their movie that I realized “THAT’S CHEESE!” – Lane Factor, who plays Cheese on Reservation Dogs, plays one of the scouts. It felt like a friend of ours had somehow made it into a Steven Spielberg movie.
The whole family is very supportive of Sammy’s productions – even his dad helps him get use of a wagon for the western, The Last Gunfight, and waves a sandwich board behind the camera to blow dust around. But Burt still can’t wrap his brain around Sammy saving up his money to buy film and equipment for something he can only understand as a “hobby.” He’ll compare Sammy being a director to his own being a project lead at work, or Sammy figuring out how to shoot a scene to his taking machines apart to know how they work, but he can’t accept the connection because it’s just about making art, not “something real” like a TV set or a clock. He’s so close to getting it, but it eludes him.
Mitzi, on the other hand, proudly claims Sammy on her team in the family’s rivalry between scientists and artists. She’s the most fascinating character in the movie, someone fighting to be happy in a life that doesn’t fit her. She reads sheet music in bed and says she misses playing piano, but brushes off Burt’s attempt to be encouraging about taking an offer to play on public radio. She symbolically avoids becoming a cliche housewife of the era by not cleaning dishes, instead buying plastic utensils and paper plates that the family ritualistically rolls up into the paper tablecloth at the end of the meal. Sammy says she’s protecting her hands to play piano. She prides herself on her very long, painted nails, which become an issue when she starts playing again and Bennie tries to convince her to lose them. It’s a scene with an agonizing clash of humor and repressed emotions as she laughs like they’re just having fun but can’t quite paint over how much it hurts her. She seems good at convincing others she’s fine, but she can’t always convince herself.
More than once in my young relationships I was accused of being a robot, but maybe something shifted in there because in middle age I’ve become such a softie and an easy cry when movies and TV shows get emotional. Still, I didn’t expect to be instantly misty thinking about Steven Spielberg seeing his very first movie, setting him on a path to making movies that have had a similarly explosive effect on so many of us at different ages (I saw RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK at the age he saw THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH, though it was E.T. a year later that really set my imagination on fire). Still, it was the stuff about his parents that got me most. It didn’t hit me as out of the blue as THE TREE OF LIFE but I think it has a little of that same quality of capturing the feeling of childhood so vividly it’s like you’re returning to a perspective of life you forgot you ever had.
I read that Spielberg tried to make a version of this movie way back in 1999, with a script by his sister Anne, writer of BIG. His parents encouraged him to do it, but it wasn’t until immediately after they died that he really got it going (writing it with Tony Kushner – Spielberg has many “story by” credits but I believe this is only his third “written by,” after POLTERGEIST and A.I.). Many have assumed he was worried that telling this story would make his parents feel bad, and I’m sure that’s part of it. But I also know it’s natural to want to dig deep into all your feelings about your parents after you lose them.
As I always say, and many have said before me, the more specific a movie is the more universal it can be. Obviously many will relate to THE FABELMANS if they had similar experiences growing up Jewish or having their parents divorce. I didn’t have those, but I found other things to deeply connect with. On the surface my parents weren’t much like Burt and Mitzi. But my dad had the Burt science brain (he was a chemical engineer, like Dolph), as well as the 9-5 working man discipline and the difficulty in expressing emotions. And though my mom never would’ve called herself an artist like Mitzi, she played piano and loved to sing and was the biggest advocate for her kids being creative. And you better believe I spent alot of time while they were sick and after they passed going over our time together and trying to calculate how the combination of those personalities helped form me. I’m not Steven Spielberg though so I can’t whip out a five star movie about it. I just gotta mention it in movie reviews sometimes.
What really took me back though is the way Mitzi deals with depression and the specific way she melts down when her problems start to overwhelm her. There are a bunch of scenes (including the fingernail one, the one where there’s a tornado and she decides to follow it in the car, and when she dances for everyone while camping) that seem too precisely peculiar to not be a detailed rendering of how Spielberg remembers them going down. It’s the feeling of a thing that happened when you were a kid that you knew was weird at the time but looking back as an adult you have different ideas and questions about what was going on in your parents’ heads. I had those times when my Mom was going through something and she acted crazy and laughed about it and we didn’t know if it was funny or scary, so it was a little of both. It wasn’t all the time, but in a movie about her life some of those days would make the cut. At the time I didn’t know what it felt like to be an adult, to be burnt out from work, to be in a marriage. I still don’t know what it’s like to manage a nursing staff, or to have kids, or a mortgage, or a giant tumor pushing on your brain, which we learned decades later might’ve exacerbated her depression. So I look back on it with a little more comprehension and way more empathy. It’s not confusing now. I get it.
For Mitzi Fabelman, and perhaps her real life inspiration, it felt impossible to be happy within the confines of the life she’d found herself in, as much as she adored her husband. And for better or worse it is through film that Sammy and Mitzi come to understand this, after he brings his camera along to document a camping trip.
It’s a family vacation loaded with subtext, starting with the sad moment when Burt proudly demonstrates how to start a fire without matches, but just before the climax loses his entire audience to Mitzi goofily swinging back and forth on a tree. Bennie comes on the trip, and spends alot of time with Mitzi, and when Burt says it’s entirely up to her whether to stay in Arizona near Bennie or move to California where he can accept a better job, she cracks. She says she’ll never leave Arizona and dances around in a haunting quasi-ballet. Bennie jokes (?) that Sammy should be filming it, and turns on the headlights to give him light. It’s such a wrenching scene, the adults all acting like they’re joking and having fun, and we’re unsure what each of them is really trying to say, or if they even know. Bennie seems to think the dance is funny, Burt seems to watch with morbid fascination, the girls try to make him stop her because they think she’s debasing herself. Sammy hides behind the camera, making sure it looks good.
It already seems like the trip pushed Mitzi over the edge, and then her mother (Robin Bartlett, IF LOOKS COULD KILL, DANGEROUS MINDS) dies. Burt seems aware that he’s in danger of losing his wife, and his desperate answer is to recognize the power Sammy’s artistic expression has over her. He buys him the editing equipment he wants, on the condition that he dedicate the weekend to cutting the camping footage into a nice film to cheer up Mom. Sammy doesn’t get it – he treats Dad like some pushy suit from the studio, not wanting to delay filming on his WWII war epic Escape to Nowhere. (Note: These may sound like the title of fake movies Max Fischer or somebody would make, but young Spielberg actually made them.)
I can’t skip over the really funny and crucial section where Mitzi’s Uncle Boris (Judd Hirsch, INDEPENDENCE DAY: RESURGENCE) shows up at the house, unannounced except for a nightmare she interprets as a warning from her mother. Boris is a loud, off-putting weirdo estranged from the family since joining the circus as a lion-tamer. He also handled animals in some movies, capturing Sammy’s attention and making him spew film nerd facts that mean little to Boris, who’s more carnie than cineaste.
Assigned to sleep in Sammy’s room, Boris seems to lament that his musician niece wasted her talents, that she could’ve and should’ve been a concert pianist. Sammy kind of brushes it off like trivia – oh yeah, she’s really good, they had her on TV once – unconsciously adopting his dad’s framing of art as a hobby you do every once in a while, and not a way of life. But then it seems to me what Boris is trying to get across is that Mitzi might’ve made the right move – that to people like Boris and Sammy, art is a curse and an addiction that makes it impossible to have a happy family life.
(One thing Boris may not recognize is that art took him away from his family life, but Mitzi’s family life took her away from her art, and she’s not happy either.)
So here’s horrified Sammy being told he’s on Team Mom and Boris and Art and Feelings against Team Dad and Science and Dispassion. But he actually wants to make a superficially-guy-stuff movie for Dad, while Dad is making him do a sentimental documentary for Mom first. This is the most crucial part of the movie because watching the footage and studying how his mother and Bennie act around each other finally clues Sammy in that they’re, you know, in love, at the very least. Spielberg says this is what really happened. (I wonder if he ever discussed it with his friend Brian De Palma, who proved his dad was cheating by surreptitiously filming him, and used that as a basis for HOME MOVIES?)
Sammy is floored by the realization, but tells no one, and fulfills the assignment of making a movie that touches his mom, who tells him, “You really see me.” Then he’s withdrawn and argumentative for weeks leading to the premiere of his war movie. It’s a great illustration of the pressures of masculinity even for non-man’s-men like Burt and Sammy. Sammy is fascinated by war movies and clearly tried to use the movie to connect with his dad. At one point he refers to WWII as “your war,” the first indication I picked up on that Burt was a veteran. But Burt doesn’t really react. During the movie Burt, like everyone, seems really impressed by the production. It’s unclear if he’s moved by the final scene where the commanding officer walks aimlessly through a field of corpses, victorious in battle but crushed by the loss of life on his shoulders. (I’m glad the reactions to the movies aren’t too over-the-top. Those type of scenes can be torturous. Here they always work.)
Furious at his mother for what he perceives as betrayal, Sammy gives her and Bennie the cold shoulder after the premiere, walks straight away from them to his dad and some scout leaders giving him manly congratulations on his military realism, saying stuff like “I bet your old man told you some stories.” Which it seems he didn’t, because he kept it all inside. Sammy’s acting totally different from how we’ve seen previously, and I really identified with this type of code-switching, trying to reclaim his guy status in a group of men I bet he finds hard to relate to ordinarily. Trying to change teams.
Eventually the cold war with his mom blows up, and she begs him to tell her why he’s treating her that way, so he sits her down in his closet for a private screening of camping trip outtakes. Some have interpreted this differently, but I believe (at least in the movie) Mitzi had not had an affair with Bennie, but was lying to herself about her feelings toward him, and the footage forces her to face them. What’s interesting though is that as soon as Sammy sees how devastated she is he changes his attitude. He embraces her and promises not to tell. And he doesn’t. Later they’ll have a private, emotional conversation about it, talking a little more like peers and confidants than mother and son.
I think the performances are all good, particularly LaBelle and the more showy Williams. Mitzi is vibrant and inspirational while just barely fuckin holding it together. If only Spielberg-worshipping Dawson Leary could’ve known his friend Jen would some day be Spielberg’s mom. Would’ve blown his dialogue-heavy little mind.
One thing I love about this movie is that neither party in the divorce seems like the bad guy. You never get the parents yelling or throwing things at each other or taking it out on the kids. Burt can be clueless or cold but never mean. Mitzi is the kind of emotional mess who suddenly buys a monkey (Crystal, DR. DOLITTLE, GARFIELD, 3:10 TO YUMA) but also that’s a thing everybody loves about her. Burt doesn’t understand Sammy’s passion for filmmaking but does many things to support it anyway. Mitzi is responsible for the biggest transgression in the marriage but even Burt seems sympathetic (if heartbroken) about it. They’re complicated people in an unwinnable situation, and because Spielberg loves them both, the movie does too.
Concurrent to much of this, Sammy is also dealing with high school shit, including anti-semitic harassment by jock assholes Logan (Sam Rechner) and Chad (Oakes Fegley, PETE’S DRAGON). He starts seeing Monica (Chloe East, THE WOLF OF SNOW HOLLOW), a very Christian girl enamored of the exoticism of a real life Jew (like her celebrity crush Jesus). I love this very high school relationship – they’re so clearly wrong for each other and not ready for anything more serious, but she’s goofy and cute and genuinely supportive of him during their brief relationship, convincing him to film the school’s annual Ditch Day event, which he agrees to because she promises he can borrow her dad’s Arriflex. (There’s Burt’s electronics nerdery coming through.)
The showing and subsequent reactions to the Ditch Day film are sort of the climax of the movie, at least as it pertains to Sammy’s expressing himself through film. It’s the only part of THE FABELMANS that seemed to land a little wobbly to me, but it’s still powerful. He’s nervous to show the movie to the school, seems like he wants to back out, but he puts it on, and it goes over like gangbusters. There’s a tension that he might’ve put something in there to get back at Logan and Chad, and will have to face a beatdown, but instead he portrays Logan as a porcelain god, winning a race, looking amazing. (Chad seems angry about his portrayal as a comic relief drunk, which confused me – did he not understand what he was taking part in?)
Logan confronts Sammy in an empty hall afterwards, furious, and it’s not clear why at first. Part of it is just confusion as to how this kid he’s been so cruel to could have an opportunity to strike back and instead do this. Then he articulates a reason that I don’t quite buy this guy being able to put his finger on or put into words – that the movie has created an image of him that he can never live up to.
But that wasn’t Sammy’s master plan. He doesn’t even know why he did it. Maybe so Logan would be nice to him, maybe because it made a better movie. I take it as Spielberg questioning his own motives as a filmmaker. You know what they say about everybody having imposter syndrome.
This was the one major scene that seemed to me made up for dramatic purposes, so I was surprised by the meta joke of Sammy promising to never tell anyone about their conversation unless he makes a movie about it. (Like for example if in 57 years he makes a movie called THE FABELMANS.) I don’t think he’d put that in there if some version of this didn’t really happen.
I’ve tried to go into some of my favorite things in this movie, but I feel like there’s way more to dig into, like Sammy imagining how he would film his parents announcing their divorce (within the actual scene Spielberg shot about his parents announcing their divorce), or the famous director played by a famous director, or the creator of Hogan’s Heroes played by Greg Grunberg, world famous as Star Wars space hero Snap Wexley although it says here that he was on a show called “Felicity” that aired right after Williams’ show Dawson’s Creek, proving I guess that Spielberg is a fan of the ‘90s WB Network shows? I don’t know anything about the topic but that’s what they’ve been saying.
A sign of how well THE FABELMANS flows is that in the next-to-last scene I had no sense of whether it was about to end or whether there were whole other chapters of life events left to tell, and yet when it did end it felt like a natural, unsurprising and perfect place to end it. Of course I would’ve liked to see it continue into the making of the “Liberian Girl” video, but I can see why he might’ve wanted to keep it simple. It honestly felt short and to the point to me, even though it’s 151 minutes long.
1) this is one of the most potent examples yet of Spielberg making a movie about something that doesn’t sound that interesting and knocking it out of the park and into a different park and then out of that park and back into the original park and then doing a spider-man wall crawl to catch it himself and humbly toss it to a small child in the crowd.
2) I would like to thank him for using fictional names so I didn’t have to keep writing “Spielberg (the character)” and “Spielberg, as director” over and over throughout the review.
SAD POST-SCRIPT: As you may know I like to look up the histories of movie theaters seen in movies. The one depicted in the opening scene is the Westmont Theatre in Haddon Township, New Jersey. It opened in 1927 and existed in several different incarnations, including a twin screen, over many decades. In the aughts there were hopes to refurbish it back to its original form, which may or may not still be possible, but in 2016 it was converted into a Planet Fitness.