According to Tolstoy, all happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. Since his cinematic directorial debut in 1974, Steven Spielberg has explored that notion with “The Sugarland Express,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial,” and more. He is arguably as known for capturing the slow burn of internal stories about broken families as he is for thrilling with his explosive, external, blockbuster special effects of sharks, UFOs and ferocious dinosaurs.
With “The Fablemans,” Spielberg turns his master storytelling camera inward and recreates his own Jewish middle-class upbringing. Through his films and in countless interviews, he has made no secret that his parents’ divorce when he was 19 left an indelible mark, and that comes through loud and clear in the film. Yet, in inimitable Spielberg style, this fictionalized autobiography seamlessly fuses a child’s wide-eyed, tender sentimentality with an adult’s unblinking eye that pierces through the gauzy coziness to reveal an underbelly of dysfunction.
This being a movie – cowritten with the brilliant Tony Kushner – by and about Spielberg, it begins at the exact place and moment where he considers his life began: at the movies. It is 1952, and 8-year-old Spielberg stand-in Sammy is being dragged to his first film by his father, Burt (Paul Dano) and mother, Mitzi (the always luminous Michelle Williams). That film, Cecile B. DeMille’s epic “The Greatest Show on Earth,” ends with a spectacular train crash that was created with miniatures.
Sammy is speechless, which his practical, computer engineer father and imaginative, classically trained pianist mother interpret according to their temperaments. Burt, who assumes Sammy is frozen with fear, scientifically explains about persistence of vision and 24 frames per second. Mitzi, tuned in to the magic and mysteries of life, gets why Sammy is thunderstruck. “Movies are dreams,” she knowingly whispers in his ear.
Sammy remains obsessed with the train crash, and for Hanukkah receives what he has unambiguously requested – a model train set. Burt is delighted his son has taken an interest in something mechanical. That delight evaporates, however, when Sammy unveils the real reason behind his request: He wants to recreate the finale train crash sequence over and over again.
In the first glimmer of family tension, his parents react in different ways. Infuriated, Burt chides Sammy for not appreciating “nice things.” Mitzi encourages her son’s creativity and suggests he shoot the train crash with Burt’s Kodak movie camera so he can rewatch it as many times as he wants without pummeling the trains into dust.
Sammy shoots his film with the multiple, dynamic angles and innate editing skills that Mitzi recognizes as genius and that will set the trajectory of his life’s passion and profession. One can’t help wondering what Spielberg’s career might have looked like if his first film had been “High Noon,” “Monkey Business” or “Singin’ in the Rain,” also 1952 mega releases.
When the film switches gears and decades and enters the Fablemans’ home in New Jersey, we are introduced to the rest of the tight-knit family through teenage Sammy’s eyes. Played by the sensitive and understated Gabriel LaBelle, he now has better filmmaking equipment, which he uses to chronicle the clan and their unguarded interactions.
Burt’s kvetching mother, Hadassah (a spot-on Jeannie Berlin) is sharp-tongued, immune to boundaries and insightful. She is a toxic foil to her daughter-in-law’s mercurial ways. Williams plays Mitzi, the heart and human dynamo of the film, with open translucence and an uncanny ability to channel her emotions onto her face. Burt (Dano) is exquisitely subtle – decent, stable and boring – and is no match for his wild-child wife. Filling that role is hale and hearty Bennie (the affable, huggable Seth Rogan), Burt’s work friend and an honorary Fableman. Only Hadassah, who is also part soothsayer, picks up on the chemistry between Bennie and Mitzi, foreshadowing the trouble to come.
Burt’s promotions take the family (and Bennie) to Arizona, where Sammy continues to hone his skills and figure out the power his movies can have to placate, manipulate, woo, glamorize and humiliate. His introduction comes when Burt demands he postpone shooting a scheduled war film and instead make a film about their recent camping trip to cheer up Mitzi, whose mother just died. “You’ll learn how the editing machine works,” he coaxes, adding as an irresistible kicker, “It’ll make your mother feel better.”
While editing, Sammy uncovers indisputable proof of the intimate relationship between Bennie and his mother, unleashing what he recognizes will be gales of destruction rather than the gentle winds of healing his father envisioned.
Shortly thereafter, Burt moves the family to California (this time without Bennie) and the film shifts gears and focus, becoming more plot-driven as Sammy navigates life as the only Jewish kid in a school dominated by antisemitic jocks and Mitzi tries – and fails – to navigate life without Bennie.
Scene-stealing cameos by David Lynch (as movie director John Ford) and Judd Hirsch (as Mitzi’s circus performer and storyteller Uncle Boris) play to a crowd Spielberg already has eating out of his hand.
More than a stroll down one man’s memory lane, however, “The Fablemans” is also a magical mystery tour about life and its inherent beauty and messiness. It’s about figuring out who you are, what makes you happy, and then going for it, full steam ahead. “Art will give you crowns in heaven and laurels on Earth. But it’ll tear your heart out and leave you lonely,” warns Uncle Boris. “Art is no game.”
Luckily for his gazillions of fans, Spielberg was up to the challenge. He recognized his own talent and followed his passion, leaving his mark on his own brand of cinematic gold in crowd-pleasing films – like ‘The Fablemans’ – that leave audiences sated, entertained. and smiling through their tears. Θ