Early in Steven Spielberg‘s “The Fablemans,” Judd Hirsch’s scene-stealing Uncle Boris says to a young Sammy (Gabrielle LaBelle) that both of them are similar because they are junkies, and art is their drug. It’s a tender, confrontational scene that shakes up the dreamy wonder about pursuing filmmaking as Sammy is obsessed with making a movie filled with action. This scene is, in many ways, the first rush of reality that Sammy encounters, and it propels him to always aim for the truth in whatever he is making. This is the first time he has received any proper reflection about envisioning a life dedicated to making movies, and he takes it seriously.
Steven Spielberg has also revealed that Uncle Boris was indeed a real-life character, that he was part of a memory from childhood that remained with him of somebody who took the light out of every situation he was present in. It is this deeply personal pool of memory from which “The Fablemans” casts its beauty; Spielberg is making a film about the people who introduced him to films. “The Fablemans” begins with young Sammy getting to see a film for the first time and being spellbound by something that he can’t control; he comes back home and tries to crash his toys against each other to achieve the same effect. His middle-class Jewish family comprises members with contrasting interests: on the one side is his mother, Mitzi (Michelle Williams), who is a concert pianist, and on the other end is his scientist father, Burt (Paul Dano). Mitzi believes in the beauty, dreams, and impulsiveness of art, whereas Burt stresses its persistence and craftsmanship.
When the Fablemans take a camping trip together, Sammy shoots a lot of footage during the trip. One of these videos revolves around Mitzi, who starts to dance in her nightgown in front of the car headlights. It’s a moment that seems to speak of pure, unbridled joy but hides a sense of loss and desperation to break free from the continuity of being in the relationship shared with Burt, which he probably understands. Sammy doesn’t realize it when it occurs in front of him, but later, as he is engrossed in editing parts of the footage to make a movie out of it, he realizes the truth. That his father has requested that he make a camping movie because he knows that will make his mother happy. He says it directly: something is amiss, and he doesn’t know how to fix it.
This builds up to the most compelling sequence of the film when Sammy realizes the truth about his family through his film. The scene is structured brilliantly where Sammy is in his room rolling out the footage and arranging it bit by bit, his mother is by the piano playing Bach’s Concerto BMV 974 in D minor, and his father is seated on the couch finishing up his day’s work. Each one of them obsesses over their own separate interests, coexisting. Yet they can’t hold themselves together. Sammy looks closely at those filmed moments, and they reflect back to him the truth about his family that was not visible to him in plain sight. Mitzi was in love with Benny (Burt’s work partner and best friend) all this time. Sammy realizes this truth only when he is consuming it through film. The tension within his family becomes palpably clear through cinema; it is what leads him to the uncompromising truth.
From here on, “The Fablemans” steadily moves on, with Sammy recognizing that his interest in filmmaking is his gift. Even as his family falls apart in more ways than one, he holds on to his obsession with filmmaking—it is the only aspect of his life that he can control. It may seem like escapism to some, but Sammy knows that cinema is his domain, where he can mold the truth according to his lens. This comes into play when he is presented with the opportunity to film the Senior Skip Day film, where he shows one of his bullies in a positive light and the other as the one who is being bullied. It’s a twisted logic that “The Fablemans” suggestively cruises over, that the director is the one who is in firm command over the material. That his personal reaction to someone might be something completely opposite, but for a film, he is willing to change that. He places the truth of the film over the truth of his relationships. This alludes to the other relationships Sammy develops through the course of the film with his father, sisters, his love interest Monica, and the school bullies. At one point, his sister tells him directly that he is more selfish than their mother, and Sammy cannot help but admit the truth. He has no time to admit his follies and mull over the never-ending crises with his family. He has a film to make. It may seem selfish, but that is what makes him sane.
The more one thinks of “The Fablemans” as a whole, the more it seems to hide. Tracing by Spielberg’s standards, it is definitely the most personal the filmmaker has ever gotten, but still, there’s a resilient distance between the subject and the artist. Even as “The Fablemans” looks at the director’s family, there’s always a gracefulness that brushes over the rougher, more complex edges of the film. “The Fablemans” feels oddly sanitized yet utterly gut-wrenching. This dramatic process of exploring personal details could have easily gone into lurid, more messy terrain, but Spielberg’s decades-long experience as a deft commercial filmmaker brings it enough closure to stick through. This is a film that is made with broad brushstrokes of empathy and reconciliation for all its characters. Where none of them are bad people wrestling with good people, but all of them are imperfect individuals simply trying to coexist. Spielberg is deliberately pulling the curtain over the harsher truths; they are not his to remove and rework. “The Fablemans” is as much a film about family as it is about despair and grief, ambition versus destiny. It is about a young boy who learns to look at his parents as human beings and, through them, tries to find saving grace in every human being he meets. They might be mean to him, but at the end of the day, he understands that there might be a separate logic for their own sanity.
Spielberg has been making films for decades, and in all his films, there is a determined sense of purpose and rigor, where the scenes are unshowy in their technical revival. The focus remains primarily on the themes and the moment of truth captured in that single scene. “The Fablemans,” too, guide us through this temperament. As a young child, Spielberg might not have been in a position to save his parents’ marriage, but as a filmmaker now, he is able to look at them through a lens of discreet compassion and reserve. There’s an insightfulness in this process of exploring the past, which makes “The Fablemans” so instantly engaging and gorgeous. As long as young Sammy is behind the camera, he knows he is growing. And that is all that matters.