At the first public screening of The Fabelmans at TIFF, director Steven Spielberg offered some brief opening remarks — in short, he wanted to be clear that, while this film is described as semi-autobiographical (and indeed is in many senses), he also feels that it is perhaps almost universally biographical in the sense that we’ve all had some iteration of a family and childhood that now affect us forever.
This statement feels representative of what Spielberg has been setting out to do with the entirety of his oeuvre. He is the master of accessible and earnest emotion: he can capture and present a sense of childhood wonder, of raw family disintegration, of adventure, and often all at once. Some dismiss this practice — many accuse him of emotional manipulation, to which I ask: is it truly so terrible for someone to make sickly sweet art? To tap into that little ache within you? Upon news that he was creating a film about his well-documented, pivotal childhood wound, some also accused him of partaking in a sort of cinematic, directorial indulgence.
Aside from my general disagreement with these critiques, I must add that, even if we were to focus only on the semi-autobiographical nature of The Fabelmans, to say that this is his first movie to “indulgently” reference his childhood is to not know much about Spielberg at all. Spielberg’s parents’ divorce has its fingerprints all over his work: tense marriages, single moms, young children looking for some sort of connection outside of the home or bearing the weight of feeling like they must care for the parent they feel the worst for. What to make of the fact that one of Spielberg’s most distinct childhood memories with his father is of a meteor shower? What about the way this plays into the young Elliot’s (Henry Thomas) insistence upon staying with his single mother in E.T., or the way that Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) insists on leaving his wife and children to be with the aliens in Close Encounters of the Third Kind?
All of this is to say that, while The Fabelmans pulls more directly from Spielberg’s childhood experience, it feels, more than anything, like it shades in what has already been sketched out time and time again. Sammy Fabelman (Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord and Gabriel LaBelle) is a young Jewish boy raised by his father, Burt Fabelman (Paul Dano), an accomplished engineer and plain-and-simple good man, and his stay-at-home mother, Mitzi (Michelle Williams), a woman with real musical talent who has opted instead for the comfortable (but perhaps overshadowed) life of being a genius engineer’s wife.
The Fabelmans sits in those split-second slices of (either painful or glorious) humanity in childhood that define you: your kind mother — who loves to laugh and refuses to take things seriously — unexpectedly slapping you across the back in a rage when you are a teenager; the pitiful sight of your father wanting you to be excited about what he’s excited about (even if it’s only lighting a campfire) and you being unable to comply. Your family wholeheartedly supporting your art, your first kiss — these split-seconds define you, and then you must do something with them. The Fabelmans sketches many potential paths: ignore what hurts like Mitzi, dote like Burt, or create like Sammy. All options come with their hang-ups; no one here is ultimately living more free and easy than the others.
From the very first film Sammy makes and projects onto the cupped palms of his tiny hands (a direct rip-off of The Greatest Show on Earth, as many of Sammy’s first pictures essentially are — but what artist does not begin this way?), he finds filmmaking to be about controlling what he cannot in reality. Is the war picture that he makes after discovering a gut-wrenching family betrayal really about the war, or about the sensation of carnage he is feeling in his own home? Is the filming of senior ditch day for a class that bullies him just an excuse to use a nice camera, or is it a way of squeezing himself into a space he’s been ostracized from?
When little Sammy damages his expensive toy trains, his father — always with the lesson at hand, platitudes that are so obvious until you grow up and realize they were painfully true the whole time — admonishes him: “You can’t just love something, you also have to take care of it, right?”
Everyone in The Fabelmans loves all sorts of people and things. Mitzi loves the piano and her husband and her kids and maybe even another man; Burt loves his work and his children and he really loves his wife; Sammy’s girlfriend Monica (Chloe East) loves all things Jesus and also making out with the nice Jewish boy at school; and Sammy loves his sisters and his parents — though, as he grows, he sometimes hates them, too — and he really loves film (maybe more than anything, maybe in a way that scares him).
But you also have to take care of it. The Fabelmans is about this taking care, maybe more than anything. It is about how hard taking care is. Loving is easy, but taking care might become something we do not expect or even want. It may mean choosing your art over your family, it may mean choosing therapy and that other man and divorce, it may mean letting your beloved choose that therapy and man and divorce over you, and it may mean accepting that people will not understand you.
And if Spielberg’s opening remarks are a testament to anything, it’s that this practice of not just loving but taking care takes us our whole lives. Just now, with The Fabelmans, it feels that Spielberg has taken care of something that probably needed taking care of for decades. I die a little when I read the accusations of indulgence, because what else are we doing here — why else are we making art and sharing it with others if not to love and take care of our truths, if not to provide others flashes of themselves in the way that we personally create?
The Fabelmans opens in front of a movie theater. A nervous, young Sammy stands before his parents, who gently explain what going to see a movie is like: how the lights will go out, how the screen will look. They are giving him a great, powerful gift. I find myself weeping. My father had that conversation with me when I was small (and thus bestowed on me my lifelong love of film) and, if I am so lucky, I will have that conversation with a small loved one of my own one day, and so on and so on. Is it really indulgent to submerge oneself in ideas of love and taking care for a few hours? Is it emotionally manipulative to emphasize how these slices of life impact us, how the act of cinematic expression and creation as healing and sharing must be cherished? I just don’t believe that to be true, and I think The Fabelmans provides far more than it indulges in its exploration of the heart-achingly personal.