(Spoiler Alert: This review contains some minor spoilers about the plot of The Fabelmans.)
Storytelling is a bit like fire…powerful, captivating even, but also, extremely dangerous. Telling a personal story, one that involves your own family, well, the stakes are even higher. But that’s not all folks, the person telling the story also happens to be the most famous director of all time. And that story he wants to tell is not all sunshine and roses…
These must have been some of the issues swirling in Stephen Spielberg’s mind as he toyed with the notion, first brought up by his writing partner Tony Kushner while making Munich, when Spielberg shared these spellbinding stories from his childhood. Ultimately, Spielberg agreed to the project, and while obviously there are differences between the movie and real life, the broad contours of the story are actually true.. Instead of providing a full-on summary, I’d like to comment on some of the main themes, belonging along with family and ambition.
Hadassah Fabelman: My rabbi in New Jersey says a monkey in the house isn’t kosher.
Mitzi Fabelman: That’s why we’re not going to eat him.
The movie opens with the Fabelmans, dad Burt (played by Paul Dano), mom Mitzi (played by Michele Williams) and the son Sammy Fabelman (played by Mateo Zoryan) outside the movie theater. After the film, on their way home, we get the first sense of Benny’s experience of life as an outsider.
After his father comments on how difficult it is to recognize their house with all the [Christmas] lights up, an unhappy Sammy quickly interjects: “It’s easy to see our house, it’s the dark one.” Sammy then asks for Christmas lights for Hanukkah. His parents laugh it off, but this is a foreshadowing of the outsider label Sammy will carry as he grows up Jewish in a predominantly gentile world.
Feeling like an outsider is not restricted to the outer world, it exists in their extended Jewish family. There’s a constant tension between Mitzi and her mother in law, Hadassah Fabelman (played by Jeannie Berlin), and at least some of it stems from the observance of kosher laws. The funny quote at the top of this section tells the true story from Spielberg’s childhood, where Mitzi, feeling depressed after a move to Northern California, adopts a monkey from a local pet store.
This outsider label becomes most pronounced after Sammy begins high school in Northern California. Most of the students are much bigger than him, and he quickly becomes the target of some fairly serious bullying, including multiple pranks with a strong anti-semitic flavor. Smaller, less athletic, and without many qualities appealing to a high school student, Sammy seems a bit lost, just as his family begins to fall apart.
In some ways this outsider label is mitigated by a new romantic relationship with Monica Sherwood (played by Chloe East), a Catholic schoolmate (I presume, though it’s somewhat unclear) who is at once both deeply desirous of converting Sammy to Christianity, and two, happy to enjoy the romantic side of their relationship. There’s a super awkward scene in which Monica asks Sammy to invite Jesus into his heart…just moments after meeting him. It’s cringeworthy, and a helpful reminder that evangelism can easily look like manipulation when done in a hasty and unthoughtful way.
On the other hand, throughout the film we see how making films acts as a social glue for Sammy. Later on as a teenager, having already discovered a love for cameras and movies, Sammy stretches the definition of “photography” for a Boy Scout merit badge and convinces his fellow scouts to make a Western movie.
Once it’s complete, the entire troop, along with family and friends, celebrate by watching the film together. It’s worth noting that throughout the film, some of the happiest moments seem to be during the “premiers” of Sammy’s films. Everyone seems genuinely happy as they watch their efforts come to life on the big screen.
For a time, Sammy gives up making films, but eventually his girlfriend Monica convinces him to film Senior Ditch Day, an event held at a nearby beach. The film will then be shown at Prom. Sammy, having just been dumped by Monica at Prom (surprisingly something I (Stu) have in common with Sammy), has no interest in showing the film, but relents after being announced from the stage. Stung by the loss of his first romantic interest, Sammy’s shoulders are slumped, his head downcast, unwilling and uninterested in watching his work.
But then something surprising takes place. Sammy, not unable to muster the willpower to watch, hears the responses of the audience. He hears the oohs and aahs, the laughs, and realizes his film is a hit. Not just a hit, it’s a spectacular success. Still devastated over Monica, Sammy retreats to a nearby hallway at the school, collapsing against the lockers.
After the film ends, one of Sammy’s tormentors, a handsome, tall blonde kid named Logan Hall (played by Sam Rechner) confronts Sammy. This is extremely surprising to the audience because, though one of the bullies who punched Sammy earlier in the film, Sammy did not retaliate as one might suppose by casting Logan in an unflattering light. Instead, he turns Logan into a hero. Logan spikes the volleyball, wins a race, and is ultimately hoisted on the backs of his admirers as they parade him across the beach.
It’s an odd decision, at first, for Sammy to portray someone so selfish, mean, and violent in such a positive light. And yet, from a filmmaker’s perspective, perhaps the only reasonable choice. He’s the hero, there’s no one else on the beach who wins the race, no one else who is carried like a king upon his contemporaries’ shoulders.
So that’s surprising, but what happens next is even more unexpected. Logan is angry, really angry, at Sammy. He asks him why he portrayed him that way. Sammy is shocked, shouldn’t you be happy, Sammy supposes, that after all the way you treated me, I still decided to turn you into the hero of the film?
But here again is the brilliance of the film…watching the film convicts Logan of just how different he really is than the character presented on the screen. Logan says as much, recognizing that his own, dare I say, sinfulness and corrupt character. To his credit, he does not simply accept the praise. Rather the film acts as a mirror to his own character, showing him just how bad a person he has been to Sammy and others. (Earlier in the film, he ends up punching Sammy in the face after Sammy accuses him (fairly) of cheating on his girlfriend.)
Here’s the dialogue between the two:
Logan Hall : Am I supposed to feel bad now about all that s*** we did to you?
Sammy Fabelman : Do you feel bad about it?
Sammy Fabelman : That’s none of your god*** business!
Sammy Fabelman : Because you should feel bad about it!
Logan Hall : Alright that’s why you did it. You wanted me to feel like crap!
Sammy Fabelman : I wanted you to be nice to me for five minutes or I did it to make my movie better! I don’t know why. You are the biggest jerk I have ever met in my entire life, I have a monkey at home that’s smarter than you!…I made you look like you could fly.
For me, this is perhaps the most interesting scene in the film, and one I didn’t fully grasp on the first viewing. Thankfully, my wife Colleen also watched it, and we took a long walk to discuss the various themes. Colleen, from the get-go, was more clued into this being a film made by a 70-year-old man, who has “done the work” to deal with the emotional distress of his childhood and adolescence. Her insight, and I think she is correct, is that this scene is probably more a nod to experiences Spielberg had later in life as a director.
We all carry our childhood with us wherever we go, and it seems likely that Spielberg would continue to struggle with his sense of belonging throughout his life. He’s directing these films with some of the most attractive, popular people on the planet. And as a brilliant filmmaker, these people (think Harrison Ford, Tom Hanks, Liam Neeson, for example) become larger-than-life, they are esteemed for the characters they play, even if they are nothing like those characters in real life. And what if some of these actors have quite awful personalities, they are selfish, self-centered, entitled? And yet, Spielberg’s job is to make them heroes anyway.
When Logan asks Sammy why he presented him the way he did, Sammy couldn’t answer. My guess is, real-life Stephen Spielberg wouldn’t have been able to answer that question as a teenager, only as a far wiser adult. Sammy made that decision because it was the only story to tell…it was the only story available to him as a filmmaker. It took me a hot minute to realize that “Fabelman” is a nod to the storyteller nature of Sammy (aka Stephen’s) life.
His life is dedicated to telling stories. As Alan Moore once noted, “artists use lies to tell the truth.”
Family & Ambition
Uncle Boris: Family, art, life. It will tear you in two.
Perhaps the biggest tension in the film lies in the tension between the pursuit of professional success and the value of family. Early in the film we find out that Burt is a brilliant engineer, already working for RCA in New Jersey, but with a longing for even more, Burt will ultimately uproot his family twice, first to Phoenix, Arizona, and then later to Northern California.
At the same time, Spielberg doesn’t present his father as a one-sided workaholic, unwilling to listen to his family’s needs over his own desire to achieve greatness. Paul Dano is convincing as a mild-mannered engineer, though one who is deeply motivated to unlock the powers of computing in a world still largely analog. Each move is devastating to Mitzi, and while we may suppose at first that she is averse to change, we realize it’s more complicated later in the film.
Burt does take his family’s concerns to heart, but ultimately convinces them to head west…in that sense there is a not-so-subtle “manifest destiny” for the Fabelman family, moving first to Arizona and then California, each time a step up the ladder of success. But as Burt keeps climbing the ladder, fissures begin to grow in the family.
Eventually, while editing a family film, Sammy realizes that his mother is having an affair with Burt’s best friend Bennie Loewy (played by Seth Rogen…this is all true to life). Having left Bennie behind in Phoenix, Mitzi begins to spiral deeper and deeper into a depression. Ultimately, she decides she cannot live without Bennie and asks for a divorce.
But there’s more to the familial dynamics than the divorce. There’s a fascinating scene that takes place after Mitzi’s mother passes away. Mitzi is beginning to spiral into a deep depression, and has a nightmare in which her mother calls her on the telephone and implores her “not to let him in.” “Let who in?” she wonders, until her maternal uncle shows up the next day. Mitzi screams “don’t let him in,” but social etiquette wins the day and Boris is invited into the home.
The visit goes well enough, and Mitzi assumes her dream didn’t come true. But there’s an interesting back and forth with Sammy and uncle Boris that elucidates this larger theme of Family vs. Career. Here’s the dialogue:
Uncle Boris: Art will give you crowns in heaven and laurels on Earth, but also, it will tear your heart out and leave you lonely. You’ll be a shanda [disgrace in Yiddish] for your loved ones. An exile in the desert. A gypsy. Art is no game! Art is dangerous as a lion’s mouth. It’ll bite your head off.
In other words, if Sammy really aspires to become a great artist, it will cost him. We know in real life it cost him his first marriage. And then let’s consider Spielberg’s relationship with his family. It’s interesting to consider that as Spielberg’s fictional family is falling apart, and much of the blame is being placed on Mitzi, that one of Sammy’s sisters says to him: “You are way more selfish than her.”
We don’t get this sense in the film, but I’m pretty sure Spielberg included it for a reason. It made me think about the reality of great talent. Great talent, if in the right circumstances, will always marshal resources (attention, time, money, etc) to its cause.
We do see Sammy being given multiple cameras, production machines, etc. throughout the film, and none of the sisters are given much attention. This may be due to the nature of storytelling (you can only focus so much attention on any single character), but perhaps it was intentional as well, demonstrating that Spielberg and his precocious (and prodigious) talents were given considerable focus within the family.
We often think that it would be wonderful to be close to a famous person. But what would life look like being a “Spielberg,” but not Stephen? Would your life always feel insignificant? Would it sting every time someone asked you if you were related to one of the greatest filmmakers of all time? I think it would be. And I think this is Spielberg’s attempt to share the complexity and challenges when one child is considered a rare genius and the rest of the children are left to fend for themselves, identity-wise.
I’ll close with this little vignette. Spielberg’s real mother moved back to Phoenix and eventually married Bernie Adler (Bennie Loewy in the film). Eventually, the two moved to Los Angeles and opened “The Milky Way,” considered “the best kosher restaurant in LA.” The restaurant was, in a significant sense, an homage to Stephen’s career. Again, it must have been hard for the rest of the children to deal with the massive shadow created by their older brother.
When it comes down to it, The Fabelmans is a rich, multi-layered film that explores themes that most of us have to deal with. How do we pursue our dreams without leaving a wake of bodies in our wake? How does a family deal with a divorce? And perhaps most importantly, how does one take an honest inventory of the scars they’ve developed over years of life within their own families? The Fabelmans is filled with real-life events from Spielberg’s childhood. It’s filled with imperfect, yet loving people who ultimately experienced the gut-wrenching, life-altering reality of a divorce.
But it’s also a story filled with compassion. If there’s one word to describe the tenor of this film, of Spielberg’s own view of his family, it is compassion. In all likelihood, this is a film Spielberg could not have made when he was 30, or even 40, or perhaps even 50.
But rather, a film about a son, who learns to come to grips with the flawed, yet loving parents. There’s a scene towards the end of the film, between Sammy and his father Burt. They are talking about the divorce, and Burt says something quite profound: We’ve gone too far in our story to actually say “the end.” And this was the case in real life. Though both got remarried, Burt and Mitzi reconnected in their later years and had a profound friendship, which lasted until Mitzi died in 2017 at age 97.
Stuart Strachan Jr. is an ordained Presbyterian Pastor as well as the founder and lead curator of the Pastor’s Workshop. He loves preaching, teaching, and helping churches cast vision for what it means to follow Jesus in the 21st Century. He has served churches in a variety of capacities in California, Colorado, Pennsylvania, and Washington.
Stu is married to Colleen, who currently serves as a spiritual formation lead at Compassion International in Colorado Springs. Stu and Colleen have two children (Jack and Emma) whom they love deeply.
In his free time, Stu enjoys gardening, golf, reading a good book, and watching baseball.
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