Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.
He doesn’t have his first camera yet, but the kid is already a director: Having attended his first movie and thrilled to the socko locomotive collision in The Greatest Show on Earth, little Sammy Fabelman asks for a train set as his Hannukah gift. His train cars are set up in a modest circle, puttering around the track, the little engine puffing a trail of smoke that catches the light in an otherwise darkened basement. In the midst of this scene from The Fabelmans, Steven Spielberg takes a moment to show Sammy crouching next to the table, eyeing the approach of the train toward him, the gleam of the visionary in his eyes. In that moment you can see that an artist is in the house, and Sammy is, whether he knows it or not, lining up a shot. He sees a frame.
The Fabelmans is not merely about any movie-mad kid, but an autobiographical reminiscence by Spielberg himself, and thus it falls into a fairly narrow subgenre of movies in which the filmmaker’s own childhood is very specifically explored—akin to Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous, with its one-in-a-million set of coming-of-age exploits, rather than François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, which mined the director’s childhood but can stand as a universal depiction of youthful unhappiness. This makes it a slightly strange experience, although there are some delicious moments that allow the audience to savor the in-joke, like teenage Sammy (played by Gabriel LaBelle) promising a bully that he would never include the scene we just saw in one of his movies. That gag—almost 60 years in the making—is a measure of Spielberg’s ability to share with an audience, the ability that has made him the most successful picture-maker ever; he wants to tell you stories, to take his feelings and throw a frame around them and pass along these moments from the stream.
Spielberg’s screenplay, written with Tony Kushner, browses through Sammy’s filmmaking adventures and the gradual dissolution of his parents’ marriage: Michelle Williams plays the frustrated-and-not-a-little-flaky artist-mom Mitzi, Paul Dano the techno-minded dad Burt, and Seth Rogen the jovial family friend whose chemistry with Mitzi is spelled out in his very first scene. The movie tends to drift in a way that Spielberg’s films usually do not, even as individual scenes come to bright, sparking life. Sammy’s encounter with a Jesus-loving Christian girl, a family camping trip that turns into an all-about-Mitzi moment, and the final sequence, a glorious Hollywood encounter—these all come to vivid, funny immediacy.
In the film’s fiercest moments, Spielberg proves as trapped in the cinema/life continuum as Jean-Luc Godard ever was. The fact that Sammy grows aware of Mitzi’s close bond with the family friend by looking through his home movies, studying them frame by frame in Blow-Up style, is a devastating concept—Sammy’s solace and voice, his camera, is now a tool for wounding revelation. That Sammy shares this knowledge in another cinematic way is equally poignant. There’s also a moment when Sammy’s camera catches his parents in an embrace, as Burt looks off-camera and Mitzi stares right into the lens—a complex gesture, arguably her way to connect with her son, but also a measure of her need to be looked at (and, in the 21st-century formulation, seen).
Michelle Williams’ superb rendering of that glance is merely one beat in a performance for the ages. I have rarely seen an actor convey with such astonishing accuracy the tone and affect of an era she did not live through herself; it’s one thing to note that Williams seems to be channeling Judy Garland and June Allyson at times, but that doesn’t begin to describe the lived-in sense of being stuck in a time that doesn’t know what to do with Mitzi’s creative, exciting, reckless energy. That this dense portrait is contained in a film created by the character’s real-life son is an act of remarkable filial sympathy and affection.
This is an enjoyable movie to write about, in part because Spielberg gives you so much. I wish I could say I was enchanted by The Fabelmans in the way I have been by some Spielberg movies, but I have to confess that much of it felt softer, less dynamic than the director’s propulsive genre exercises. But I can easily believe the film might look better on a second viewing, especially if I’m less distracted by the fairly frequent “Did this really happen to Spielberg?” thought-bubbles that popped above my head as I watched. In any case, I’m glad I saw the movie with an audience, the better to experience the collective delight of the movie’s final second, in which Spielberg once again—explicitly in this case—instructs his audience on how to look.
November 25, 2022
Robert Horton is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.