The Fabelmans is an incredible portrait of family and movies, care of Steven Spielberg

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The Fabelmans is an incredible portrait of family and movies, care of Steven Spielberg
Inspired by Steven Spielberg’s childhood, The Fabelmans is one of his most personal works. In a script co-written by long-time collaborator Tony Kushner (Angels in America), the film opens as the young Sammy Fabelman goes to the movies for the first time. Sammy is afraid. In the twilight, lit by the marquee, his scientist father explains the mechanics of the medium on one side of the frame and his mother’s artistry and emotions on the other. In this short prologue, the conflicts and ambitions of the film are laid bare. 

The film opens in New Jersey, but after a new job offer, the whole family packs up to move to Arizona and, later, northern California, where Sammy will come of age. Inspired by his experience watching The Greatest Show on Earth, Sammy picks up his father’s camera and begins to make movies. His mother encourages him, while his father treats it as little more than a hobby. The film covers many of the expected pitfalls of the genre: family, sex and meaning. Yet, in typical Spielberg fashion, the film abounds with inspired and specific characterizations that feel both true and larger than life. 

The film’s heart, for better and worse, is confronting the spectre of a complex and uncontrollable mother figure. Sammy’s mom is a semi-retired pianist who stays home to care for the children. She has pointed, red nails and hates to do the dishes. While Sammy grows up and tries to find his place in the world, his mother goes through a similar struggle to reaffirm her identity outside of her role as a wife and mother. Michelle Williams, doing a wide-eyed Judy Garland riff that might grate on some but feels true — assuming, like me, you had a great aunt who also was a pianist and had a complicated joie de vivre.

It’s hard to say how successfully the film addresses these questions. We remain firmly in the point of view of a child and an adolescent grappling with his place in the world. What room does his mother have on this journey? Is Mitzi ever able to become more than just a character in her son’s life, an unknowable force of nature that shapes him? The treatment of her moral failures is surprisingly tender. The film doesn’t aim to condemn anyone for their inability to provide for others when they can barely provide for themselves. It’s a film that transcends the rage and disappointment at realizing your parents are not gods but real people. 

Spielberg’s long-time collaborator, cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, does the impossible in recreating the warm light and movement of the 1940s and ’50s cinema. The incredible beauty of each frame feels transcendent as it ties to Sammy’s discoveries and observations about the medium and the world around him. The use of light and the power of editing to transform and even transmute reality become increasingly complex as the film goes on. Yet, cinema’s ultimate failure to capture the totality of experience is also laid bare. Mainly through home movies shot by Sammy, the inherent artifice of the medium becomes increasingly apparent. Can we capture truth through images? 

Depending on your mileage, it’s refreshing or cloying that Spielberg’s harsh confrontation with his past remains so classical and inviting. The film is humanist without necessarily being particularly challenging. It raises some compelling questions about affirming your identity within the family unit — who is allowed to be an individual within the family and how, even if you want to, you can’t entirely escape your upbringing. The Fabelmans has that epic sheen that maintains an unintended distance, where the ugliness of reality feels stamped out and buried deep below the surface.

It’s a film that transforms the mundane into the majestic with humour and love. It also likely ranks as one of Spielberg’s funniest films, as it mines eccentricity and misguided passion for artful set pieces and quick, combative dialogue. Yet, it’s almost impossible not to be charmed by the film’s attention to detail, like the typewriter clacking of his mother’s fingernails on the piano keys or Sammy’s Jesus-obsessed high school girlfriend’s “shrine to guys” decorated with Christ and 1950s pop stars.

Despite its relatively long runtime, The Fabelmans is enchanting and breezy, capturing the rose-coloured glasses of youth. It’s a cliché at this point, but few films capture falling in love with cinema with such reverence for the medium’s technical components as much as its artistry. While this likely won’t win over the Spielberg detractors, it’s an incredible film about family and finding your purpose in life. ■

The Fabelmans (directed by Steven Spielberg)

The Fabelmans opens in Montreal theatres on Friday, Nov. 25.

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