As part of our coverage of the 47th annual Toronto International Film Festival, Anna Swanson reviews Steven Spielberg’s latest, The Fablemans, starring Paul Dano, Michelle Williams, and Seth Rogen. Follow along with more coverage in our Toronto International Film Festival archives.
At a post-screening Q&A at TIFF, Steven Spielberg spoke about how many of the thematic throughlines in his latest, The Fabelmans, have been present but never foregrounded in his previous films. Or, as he put it, E.T. was a movie about his parents’ divorce until an alien got in the way.
This time, however, there are no aliens to be found, sharks to be fought, or battles to be waged. In The Fabelmans, a fictionalized representation of Spielberg’s childhood and young adulthood, there’s simply a boy growing up in post-war suburbia and going to the movies. The film opens with Sammy Fabelman (Mateo Zoryon Francis-Deford) on his way to see Cecil B. DeMille’s The Greatest Show On Earth with his parents, Burt (Paul Dano) and Mitzi (Michelle Williams). His father, an engineer, explains the mechanics of the film, while his mother, who we’re later told could have been a concert pianist in another life, thinks of films as dreams that you never forget.
Like many movie-goers that came before him, Sammy is particularly enthralled by a train on screen. A spectacular train crash is what The Greatest Show On Earth is most well known for, and it’s what captures Sammy’s imagination. Naturally, he becomes obsessed — first with getting a train set, then crashing that train set, and finally, filming the crash of the train set. As his mother intuits, it’s because Sammy is so frightened of the crash, the only thing that helps him is to film it, rewatch it, and thus gain a sense of control over it. In one particularly moving image, captured by Spielberg’s regular DP Janusz Kamiński, Sammy cups his hands around the film image as it’s beamed out of his mini projector. The whole world is in his hands, as they say.
Though these early moments appear through rose-colored glasses, the tension in Sam’s parents’ differing personalities begins to appear. Mitzi is an artist and a dreamer. She’s also prone to bouts of mania, drives her children towards a tornado simply because it’s exciting, and is always keen to put on a show. Burt is introverted, logical, and never quite sure how his son could be driven more by passion than practicality. But as he explains to Sammy after catching the kid wrecking his new train set, loving something means taking care of it, and he always tries to live by that standard.
As Sammy grows up and his family moves from New Jersey to Arizona for his father’s work, the love of creating moving pictures stays with him. Before long, we’re watching teenage Sam (Gabriel LaBelle) make shorts with his boy scout troop. But while Sam’s love for the medium only deepens, his parents’ love for each other becomes tested. Mitzi becomes close with family friend “Uncle” Benny (Seth Rogen), a fact that Sam picks up on when Burt doesn’t. Still, nothing is clear cut, and exactly what lines have been crossed is a murky subject.
Things don’t improve for the Fabelman family when Sam’s parents move him and his sisters (but not Uncle Benny) to Northern California, again for work. It’s here that Sam is confronted by antisemitic bullies and the dawning realization that, as adulthood approaches, his father expects him to put away the “hobby” of movie making and set his sights on a real career. However, Sam’s love of film is what defines him, and it’s how he makes sense of the world. But as much as Sam (and Spielberg) clearly fetishize the experience of working with celluloid, the film also has a considerate approach to how film can function, the power it wields beyond intention, and the impossibility of objectivity.
It’s one thing for Spielberg to make a movie about how cool it was as a kid to realize that poking a hole in the film could simulate gunfire when projected (and indeed, this is extremely cool). It’s another thing to fully reckon with the act of creation and the instances where filmmaking becomes unpredictable. In one scene, Sam learns firsthand that the camera can capture and preserve details that were missed by the human eye. When reviewing footage from a camping trip, he notices his mother’s closeness with Benny though their relationship went unnoticed by everyone on the trip.
In another scene, he holds the power of the image over a high school bully. After filming a class trip to the beach, he shows his school the footage and depicts his tormenter as a golden god who wins footraces in the sand with ease and attracts adoration wherever he goes. It should come across as complimentary, but it doesn’t to the subject. Instead, he feels taunted. His image on the screen is greater than he can ever live up to, and now he knows it. Sam claims ignorance and says the camera just objectively filmed what happened, but by now, we know that he knows better. If the best revenge is a life well-lived, then the second best would have to be confronting your bully with the knowledge that they peaked in high school before prom has even ended. Spielberg, one must imagine, is rather proud of having done both.
As a child, Sammy was confronted with that unique feeling that blends awe and terror. As a filmmaker, Spielberg has spent his life recreating that sensation. At one point, another character refers to one of his shorts as a “snow job,” and the Elvis fans among us will recognize that, indeed, young Sammy’s reaction to The Greatest Show on Earth is that of someone who has been manipulated by what they’ve seen and is afraid of how much they’re enjoying it.
But Sammy’s re-staging of the train crash isn’t just about fear and pleasure. It’s about control. By filming something and watching it over and over again, Sammy can come to master that which scares him most. For Spielberg, the re-staging of his parents’ separation is also an assertion of control.
From Richard Dreyfuss walking out on his wife and kids in Close Encounters of the Third Kind to David in A.I., who wants nothing more than to find a loving mother figure, there has always been fodder for those who wish to mine Spielberg’s portrayals of parents to find who may be at fault. However, this time there are no aliens to obscure Spielberg’s thoughts on the subject. His final say on the matter isn’t done to assign blame. It’s to forgive, and in doing so, to mythologize.
By laying bare indiscretions and frustrations, Spielberg is ostensibly airing out the dirty laundry and then treating it with the empathy that can only come from an adult perspective on childhood memories. As they’re depicted in the film, Burt and Mitzi are far more nuanced and complicated than any kid believes their parents to be when they’re young. It’s a touching, mature gesture that ultimately flatters all involved. At the end of The Fabelmans, Sam is who he is because of his parents. And because Sam is also Spielberg, we know it was all worth it.