The Fabelmans are a middle-class Jewish family living in various cities in the middle of the 20th century. Steven Spielberg’s film about them centers on the conflict between artistic drive and personal responsibility, as well as the mysteries of talent and happiness.
The matriarch, Mitzi (Michelle Williams), is a former concert pianist who became a homemaker and piano teacher. The patriarch, Burt (Paul Dano), is a scientist who works for various tech companies and likes to shoot home movies. One night, Mitzi and Burt take their eight-year-old son Sammy (Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord) to his first theatrical film experience, “The Greatest Show on Earth.” It ends with a spectacular train crash that was created with miniatures. Sammy becomes obsessed with the sequence and asks for a train set, which he crashes in an attempt to recreate the scene, infuriating his father, whose takeaway is that Sammy doesn’t appreciate nice things. The mother suggests that the boy shoot the trains crashing with his father’s movie camera so that he can watch one crash over and over instead of bashing the trains until they fall apart. Sammy is a prodigy, and possibly a genius. Mitzi can tell that from watching the boy’s first film, which employs multiple, dynamic angles to capture the crash, and uses editing to build suspense and set up visual jokes.
But this is not just a movie about somebody who’s already good at something and gets even better at it. It’s about the difficulty of marriage, parenting, and being somebody’s child. It’s also about the miracle of talent, an idea that’s explored not just through the central trio of Sammy, Mitzi, and Burt (who has real talent as a scientist and engineer) but through a secondary character, Burt’s best friend Benny Loewy (Seth Rogen), who is around their house so much that he’s a part of the family. It’s obvious that Mitzi clicks more with Benny than with Burt, who is a good husband and father but is fundamentally unexciting (and, to his shame, knows it) and can be blandly controlling. Benny is hale and hearty, a guy’s guy, witty and self-deprecating and energetic. He’s as gifted at being a mate and parent as Burt is at science, as Sammy is at filmmaking, and as Mitzi was at performance until she gave it up. Notice how, during a Fabelman family camping trip, Burt drones on to the sisters about how to light a campfire while Benny is in the background, using his burly strength to pull back a sapling that Mitzi has clung to, then releasing it to create an improvised playground ride. He knows what this family really wants and needs.
Where do these gifts come from? It’s not just in the genes, the psyche, the conditioning, or the trauma. It’s mysterious. It arrives out of nowhere like the shark in “Jaws,” the UFOs in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” the miracles and disasters of “War of the Worlds” and the Indiana Jones and Jurassic Park movies, and the eruptions of gore and cruelty in Spielberg’s R-rated historical epics. Sammy’s Uncle Boris (Judd Hirsch), a circus performer and storyteller, lays it out for him one night: people who know that they have talent must commit to it, not waste it; but the more fiercely they commit, the more they may neglect their loved ones, or feel as if they are (which can induce guilt). This conflict will wrestle inside an artist forever.
From an early age, Sammy figures out—or perhaps instinctively knows—that a camera can be used not merely to tell stories and make pretty pictures, but win friends; placate or manipulate enemies; woo prospective romantic partners; glamorize and humiliate; show people a better self that they could aspire to become; shield the artist against hurt during painful moments; smooth out or obstruct the truth, and blatantly lie.
Sammy continues to refine his skills through adolescence (which is when a thoughtful and subtle young actor named Gabriel LaBelle takes over). He gets better filmmaking equipment that can do more things. When he makes a Western with a bunch of neighborhood kids, he figures out from looking at the way his mother’s high-heeled shoe punctured a dropped piece of sheet music on the living room carpet that he can punch holes in strips of film to make it seem like the boys’ toy guns are firing blanks, like in a real movie. When Sammy directs a World War II combat film starring his fellow Eagle Scouts, it wins him a merit badge for photography, in large part because he’s not just a technician, but a showman who has carefully studied the construction of the movies he loves (John Ford’s “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” is a big one, and it just happens to be about the tension between reality and myth).
Then Burt moves the family to California. He and his sisters are seemingly the only Jewish kids in a school populated by tall, conventionally good-looking WASPs, some of whom torment Sammy because of his heritage. A fissure opens up in the family, and though it’s not anyone’s creativity that cracked it open, different manifestations of Fabelman talent pry it further, creating fraught moments in which characters have to decide to reveal an important but hurtful truth or keep it to themselves in the name of domestic tranquility (this film’s version of the famous line from Ford’s “Valance”—when the legend becomes fact, print the legend).
“The Fabelmans” ends before it can get to the now-legendary story of Spielberg directing Joan Crawford in an episode of “Night Gallery” at age 19 but substitutes a moment just as thrilling: Spielberg’s brief meeting with his hero Ford (played in a masterful stroke of casting by David Lynch) who takes nearly as long lighting a cigar as he does speaking to his visitor. Of course, there’s a lot more to Spielberg’s personal story.
But this is a movie, and movies can’t encompass everything, any more than books or plays can. Spielberg and his co-writer Tony Kushner (who worked with Spielberg on “Munich,” “Lincoln,” and “West Side Story”) avoid the fundamental mistake that hobbles so many film biographies (and autobiographies), which is to try to cram every single moment that people might’ve heard of elsewhere into two-plus hours, making it impossible to linger on any one thing. Kushner and Spielberg (taking his first screenplay credit since “A.I.”) refashion the director’s life as a work of fiction. That lets them simultaneously tease and nullify a thought that viewers would have had anyhow: How much of this actually happened? And it lets them concentrate on a few milestone moments that have been reimagined for a Hollywood feature aimed at the broadest possible audience, and tie everything back to intertwined questions that any viewer can relate to: How do you define happiness? And is it possible to achieve it without hurting anybody else?
The answer, as it turns out, is no. All of the characters in “The Fabelmans” can be divided into three categories. Some realize they are unhappy and do their best to change their situation. Others remain unhappy because they aren’t bold enough (or ruthless enough) to take the necessary steps. And a lucky few don’t worry about it because they’re already happy.
Kushner and Spielberg shape a lot of the story into self-contained scenes with beginnings, middles, and ends, as in a stage play. But of course, Spielberg doesn’t shoot anything in a cliched “stagey” way; on the contrary, he once again demonstrates what Orson Welles noticed about him early in his career: that he was the first major director whose visual sense wasn’t shaped by the proscenium arch. Much of the film is told in long takes that don’t feel show-offy because Spielberg’s blocking is always in service of deepening characters and illustrating themes. Just look at that opening scene outside of the movie theater, which ends with young Sammy silhouetted in the middle of the frame: a human dividing line, with his father (who speaks of cinema in terms of photography and persistence of vision) on one side and his mother (who tells him movies are mainly about feelings and dreaming) on the other.
In the end, it all comes back to people figuring out who they are and then deciding whether to fully commit to the course they think will bring them the most happiness. That the movie leaves deep questions unresolved and presents all the related philosophical and aesthetic issues in a playful way (the final shot is a sight gag!) makes the experience quintessential Spielberg. You think he’s giving you everything and that it’s all right there on the surface. But the longer you sit with it, the more you realize how many gifts it contains.