My biggest concern walking into the screening for “The Fabelmans” was that this fictionalized autobiopic would end up being an over-lengthy, self-indulgent, surface-level story of how a young boy became one of the greatest directors of all time. I could not have been more wrong. Yes, it does follow his life between ages 8 and 18, and it romanticizes the influences that would drive his artistic career, but it’s also one of the most personal films I’ve ever seen. Spielberg, who co-wrote the screenplay with Tony Kushner, pull back the curtain and reveal the best and worst moments of his youth. He calls it his first “coming of age story” but explains that it’s really about the time in his life when he went from seeing his mother and father as parents to seeing them as humans.
The film begins the night young Sammy Fabelman (Mateo Zoryan) is about to see his very first movie, Cecil B. DeMille’s “The Greatest Show on Earth.” To say the climatic train wreck at the end had a profound impact on him would be an understatement. Obsessed with recreating that scene, he convinces his father, Burt (Paul Dano), and mother Mitzi (Michelle Williams) to gift him a train set for Hanukkah. The first chance he gets, he begins crashing his train into various objects. Mitzi immediately recognizes these actions for what they are. Sammy needs to be able to have control over the emotions he’s left with from seeing that on the big screen. She helps him film the wreck(s) on the family’s super 8 camera and his obsession is born. Like Spielberg himself, Sammy uses film as a way to understand his emotions and the world around him. It’s like a drug at times. He can escape into it, he can use it to dissect people, and he can wield incredible power with it.
It’s while editing some family home movies that he accidentally uncovers the affair his mom is having with his father’s best friend Buddie (). This is another event that actually happened. He’s ripped apart, not knowing how to process this information or what to do. Later, it’s film that once again helps him share what he’s discovered with someone else. There’s a heart-wrenching scene near the end during a painful family discussion whereas Sammy sits on the stairs listening, we see a reflection of him pass through a mirror intently filming the drama play out. Realizing that Speilberg is still working through the family trauma he experienced, dissecting it on screen, and showing the world is a powerful feeling. The movie doesn’t vilify any of the adults in it but instead, it feels as if Speilberg is forgiving his parents and saying he now understands.
Above all “The Fabelmans” is a story of passion. All of the main characters have their own passions, but in an incredible scene featuring Judd Hirsch, Sammy is told he’ll have to make a choice since Art and Family will always rip each other apart. Unfortunately, for the passionate, it’s never a choice. They’ll always end up with the one that gnaws relentlessly on their soul.